UNITY AND DIVERSITY: ISLAM, MUSLIMS AND THE CHALLENGE OF PLURALISM

Closing Plenary Address at the AMSS 3rd Annual Conference held at the Diplomatic Academy, Westminster University, London, 20-21 October, 2001. Reprinted with permission of the author.
I’d like to start by challenging the dangerous doctrine of the clash of civilizations by finding common ground between the Anglo-Saxon spirit and Islamic values and virtues in the idea of the “middle way”.

The source of this, to my mind, is an Englishman, not the 17th century Francis Bacon, but his namesake, the 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon. As President ‘Ilija Izetbegovic has written in his book, Islam Between East and West, Roger Bacon “set the entire structure of English philosophical thought on two separate foundations”: inward experience, which leads to spiritual insight, and observation and experimentation, which leads to true science. Bacon never attempted “to reduce the scientific or religious outlooks at the other’s expense. He established a balance between them. This aspect of Bacon’s genius is considered by most Englishmen as the most authentic expression of English thought and feeling; many even consider all subsequent English philosophy [and its influence on the whole Anglo-Saxon world] as nothing but the development of Bacon’s principle of thinking”.1

President Izetbegovic continues that there is “another important fact about Roger Bacon which has never been sufficiently studied and recognized: the father of English philosophy and science was really a student of Arabic”; indeed, he lectured at Oxford in Arab clothes. He was strongly influenced by Islamic thinkers, especially by Ibn Sina, and to this influence can be attributed the character of Bacon’s thought and, through him, the origin of the middle way as the single most important guiding principle in English life, encompassing many dimensions, political, social, moral, and spiritual. This stream of thought has at its heart the principle of balance, balance between reason, observation and science on the one hand and faith on the other; balance between individual freedoms and rights, and wider responsibilities within society; balance between utilitarian morality or pragmatism and the highest ideals; and balance between a practical concern with the immanent condition of mankind and a hunger for transcendence.

At its heart, too, is the principle of fairness, the fair play so integral to the English conception of good character, and let’s be clear about the origin of the English word “fair” because it shows again how closely this idea is connected to Islamic principles. The English word “fair” has two meanings - the first is “just, equitable, reasonable” and the second is “beautiful”, but the meaning of its original Germanic root is “fitting”, that which is the right size, in the correct ratio or proportion. The range of meanings of this word “fair” reflect a truly Islamic concept, the idea that to be just is to “do what is beautiful” (ihsan) to act in accordance with our original nature (fitra), which, like the whole of creation, is created, as the Qur’an says, “in due measure and proportion” as a “fitting” reflection of divine order and harmony. So, a fair and just society is a beautiful society, and, in the words of a famous hadith, “God is Beauty and delights in the beautiful”.

Now, I’m not intending to overplay and exaggerate the common ground which can be found in the Anglo-Saxon world and Islam, although it’s high time, in the midst of all the rhetoric about the clash of civilizations, that we applied a corrective and issued a strong warning about the brutal consequences of exaggerating differences.

But let’s be clear about where the ways did part. For one thing, it can easily be shown that the balance between the religious and the scientific outlooks inherited from Islam in Roger Bacon’s philosophy began to be seriously disturbed with the onset of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, and we know what has happened now: a profound and pervasive loss of the sense of the sacred in Western culture wrought by scientific materialism, or scientism, and secularisation. We can see what was behind this too. The original balance between inward experience and external observation in Bacon’s vision was destroyed by limiting science only to experimentation. The mind of Western man became externalized, focused only on observable and quantifiable realities. Inward experience, the source of a deeper science or wisdom, was no longer to be trusted; the capacity for its most developed form, contemplation, the source of spiritual insight, was lost, and the very idea of revelation, of a Book, as the Qur’an says, “for those who believe in the Unseen”, beyond the reach of human perception, was denied. The displayed Book of Nature, too, was divested of its significance, in the sense that its workings were no longer seen as signs of majesty and beauty and of the due measure and proportion invested in creation by the Creator.

And yet, I do believe that the restoration of that sense of the sacred is very much linked with the challenge of pluralism. Diana Eck is director of the Pluralism Project, and professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, and her five defining principles of pluralism are worth repeating.2

First, “pluralism is not the sheer fact of plurality or cosmopolitanism alone, but it is active engagement with plurality.” Now, it is understandable, of course, that there is a climate of revolt amongst many Muslims against what has been called in this conference the “trajectory of globalization” and an active resistance to the cultural and political dominance that has accompanied it, a resistance which has been even more sharply polarized by recent events and by dangerous rhetoric from both sides. Other papers have pointed to the prospect of increasing disaffection and alienation in British Muslim communities which have become marginalized and disadvantaged through economic and structural inequalities, through Islamophobia in the press and in institutions, and through certain fixed attitudes in their own communities. And it is not surprising either that there should be solid resistance to the attempt to pin the blame for the recent riots in the north of England on faith schools. This scapegoating of faith schools, exploited by the press, was the outcome of some seriously mistaken assumptions in the Ouseley Report, and the denial of any official recognition of the existence of Islamophobia as a key factor. The danger is, of course, that recent events will sound an even louder death knell for faith schools, and there are already signs of a hardening of attitudes against them.

We must acknowledge all these difficulties, but they cannot be solved by retreating into hostile isolation. Pluralism requires active engagement. And the strongest theme which has emerged from this conference is the recognition of that need for engagement
The second feature of true pluralism is that “it is not mere tolerance, but the seeking of understanding”. Diana Eck is surely right that as a style of living together, “tolerance is too minimal an expectation. Indeed, It may be a passive form of hostility”, a kind of “shaky truce”. “It does not require us to know anything new, it does not even entertain the fact that we might change in the process”. Tolerance is often regarded as a key English virtue, or marker of Englishness, like empiricism and the rule of law, and there is something in this, something recognized by Muslims too when they express their confidence in British fair-mindedness. But tolerance needs to be enshrined in and reinforced by the rule of law, which is why laws against religious discrimination in this country are long overdue, as we heard in this conference in the critical analysis of race relations legislation in the UK.

The third feature of pluralism is that it is “not simply relativism, but assumes real commitment”. But let’s be careful here. Let’s not use words like “relativism” as labels which imprison us; let’s use them carefully and understand the full range of their meanings. The positive sense of “relativism” is to do with “relating”, finding “relationship”. If we can’t relate to other communities and if we can’t find the relationship between text and context, how on earth can we expect to participate in a multicultural society?

One of the powerful themes which has been explored in this conference is not the supposed opposition between Islam and pluralism, but the fact that pluralism is itself an ideal environment to project not narrow formalisms but core Islamic values including the genuinely Islamic concept of human dignity and those universal values which promote unity in the secular world - values such as seeking knowledge, equality, freedom, human rights, justice and altruism. It is painful to me, as a Westerner and as a Muslim, to hear the West attributing to itself so many of the best tunes in its mission to hold the high moral ground. The genuine new world order which people of insight saw as a potential outcome of the events of September 11th is embedded in the pluralistic vision of Islam and embodied in the prototype of an Islamic society existing during the time of the Prophet (saws), and in al-Andalus, a vision capable of reconciling the demands of diversity and unity in a humane framework. But how many people in the West know this? How many Muslims understand this? Or if they do, is it only a matter of history, of bygone achievements.

Let’s be careful, too, about the word individualism. As has been persuasively argued at this conference, individualism, that other bogey word which is often lumped together with relativism as a manifestation of Western decadence, is not necessarily anti-Islamic at all. While we need to distinguish positive individuality from negative individualism, we should not set the needs of the individual and communitarian unity in opposition to each other. True pluralism must give space to both individual and collective rights.

But there are two shades of relativism that are inimical and antithetical to pluralism. The first is nihilistic relativism, which denies the very heart of religious truth, and the second is a relativism that lacks commitment to any particular community or faith.
In the words of Diana Eck, “the true pluralist stands in a particular community and is willing to be committed to the struggles of that community even as a restless critic”, and I would add even as devil’s advocate.

The challenge for the pluralist, so succinctly defined by Eck, is “commitment without dogmatism and community without communalism”. The task of the pluralist society is to “create the space and the means for the encounter of commitments, not to neutralize all commitment. Unless all of us can encounter one another’s conceptual, cultural, religious and spiritual expressions and understand them through dialogue, both critically and self-critically, we cannot begin to live with maturity and integrity” in the greater common world.

As we heard in one of the presentations from a spiritual perspective, the most obvious expression of diversity is the underlying elemental polarity in the whole of creation, in which, the Qur’an says, “everything have We created in pairs”, and “We have created you all out of a male and a female…” (49:13). The dance of this polarity is the excitement we call “love”, and its most obvious expression for us is the existence of gender, the sublime pairing of masculine and feminine. That is why dialogue about gender relations and gender issues, including the social, educational and political rights of women and the valuation of feminine spirituality, must constitute a vital element in this process of encountering diversity. It’s no good simply pointing to the supposed dangers of radical “feminism” and using this as a label to stifle dialogue. This is no better than using the term “fundamentalist” to induce fear and loathing of Muslims. If we don’t like labels, we should stop using them ourselves. We must not imprison ourselves by language. And of course, the dialogue must go both ways, and those in Western culture who use the label of “suppression” to characterise the condition of Muslim women in general must also try to understand the way in which their own assumptions about what constitutes freedom can actually oppress the very women they seek to liberate.

The fourth characteristic of true pluralism is that it is not syncretism, the creation of a new religion by the fusing of elements from different traditions, but is based on respect for differences.

An example of syncretism is Manichaeism, an invention of Mani in the 3rd Century, interweaving strands from the Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Christian traditions.
A contemporary, informal expression of this type of fusion is what is loosely called New Age religion today. I’ve seen a lot of this because I used to live in Glastonbury, the centre of the New Age movement in England, and some say the whole world. Here, there are people who have pieced together a package or medley of spiritual aids derived from picking the bits they like from a plethora of different traditions, including Native American ritual, Hindu yoga and Ayurvedic medicine, Buddhist meditation, mystical poetry from various traditions including that of Islamic spirituality, paganism, occultism, parapsychology, Jungian depth psychology, sacred geometry, numerology, mythology, ecology, and the kind of obsessive mystification which finds esoteric correspondences in everything, even between the dimensions of the pyramids of Egypt, the existence of alien civilisations and the activities of dolphins.

I know it’s easy to pull the plug on this by ridiculing its most deluded expressions and I’ve done my own share of critiquing it, but I have to say also that behind it there is a genuine spiritual hunger for unity in diversity fed by a disillusionment with the institutionalised forms of the great world religions whose adherents often fail dismally to convey or to embody the spiritual essence of their own traditions.

Over the last few months, a great number of non-Muslims have been showing a huge interest in Islam. Many bookshops have run out of copies of the Qur’an and other books on Islam. I have been asked to recommend books on Islam to various bookshops, including one in Glastonbury. Many of these non-Muslims who want to know about Islam are curious about its spiritual message; many are open-minded people who are not buying into media stereotypes and want to discover for themselves in a spirit of critical enquiry whether what is being said about Islam is true or not. What are we saying about the spiritual message of Islam which might help them in their quest for understanding? If we remain too fixed on social and political matters, and the needs of specific communities, we limit our function and fail to encompass the opportunity that is now before us to advance the cause of Islam through its universal message for all mankind.

The fifth and final point about true pluralism is that it is based on dialogue. Without dialogue and dialectic, the diversity of traditions, whether religious or cultural, becomes “an array of isolated encampments, each with a different flag, meeting only occasionally for formalities or for battle”. Through dialogue, we actually find a means to understand ourselves, our own faith and our culture more deeply. It is not an adversarial debate between two positions, but a truth-seeking encounter, a process of mutual transformation which goes beyond understanding of the ‘other’ to a new level of mutual self-understanding. Says the Prophet (saws): “He who knows his own self, knows God”.
In one sense, the very polarity which underlies all diversity, is of course a handicap because it has given to mankind this divided nature, this tendency to see reality in black and white, in competing paradigms, and indeed destructively in an us-and-them mentality, an either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us clash of civilisations. The tendency to dichotomise reality in this way appears to be inherent to some extent in the way the brain works, because if you saw simultaneously all the grey areas, all the possible contradictions to any position and every conceivable point of view, you would be paralysed, incapable of any decisive action, or overwhelmed by confusion. You would not be able to survive as a human being. There has to be some selection of input and output. Hence the stereotype of the armchair philosopher hopelessly entangled in endless modifications of statements and counter-statements and never able to come to a conclusion.

I am reminded of the giant computer in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” which spent six million years trying to calculate the answer to the question “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” and finally came up with the answer “42”, much to the understandable disappointment and frustration of those eagerly waiting for the answer.

I am also reminded of the peculiar case of a famous Russian mnemonist (someone with an exceptional memory) who could perform extraordinary feats of memory because his brain was able to translate words spontaneously and automatically into memorable images and patterns, but who was incapable of understanding poetry because the metaphorical language of poetry did not conform to the fixed associations and automatic routines in his own brain which allowed him to perform such feats of memory. We are not thrown into confusion when we read one poet writing “April is the cruellest month……” and another writing “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there…” , but our mnemonist would have been lost. To him, the word April could only have a fixed association or emotional connotation, and could only evoke an unchanging image or a particular colour. This gave his brain extraordinary computational power, but his comprehension was grossly disabled. He could not interpret anything; he could only generate a single fixed meaning.

The normal human brain is different from a computer or that of an idiot savant (someone with an exceptional gift in one very specialized area but often with major disabilities in others). I am always amused by that common visual joke about computers or robots whose circuits start burning and smoking and which eventually explode when they are given a logical contradiction or a paradox to process. This is one of the best ways to get rid of robots in science fiction movies. They simply can’t do it. They fall apart. I am sure that this is why I am always getting the dramatic error message “fatal error” on my computer screen before the wretched thing crashes.

We have to accept that the tendency to debate and adversarial argument is ingrained in us because of our very existence in a world of duality, a world in which everything, says the Qur’an, is “created in pairs”, and that this tendency is ironically reinforced by the gift of language, given to man alone by God, when He “imparted unto Adam the names of all things” (2:31). On one level this is the capacity for differentiating, separating and defining things through the faculty of conceptual thought empowered through the names. On another level completely, “the letter”, as al-Niffari, says, “is a veil” which separates us from unity precisely because it is a tool for manifesting and proliferating endless diversity and multiplicity.

But, unlike computers, human beings have the means to reconcile the opposites, to encompass creative paradox, to be comfortable with diversity and difference. That is because as well as being given the Names which enable us to differentiate, we are also endowed with fitra, that innate disposition which enables us to remember the unity of our primordial condition. And it is only through constant remembrance that we can purify our own hearts. In the words of the hadith qudsi, “Neither the heavens nor the earth encompass me, but the heart of my faithful servant does encompass me”. It is only in the human heart that the opposites can be reconciled, that diversity and unity co-exist.
There is a wonderful science fiction trilogy written by C.S. Lewis, the devout Christian writer and scholar. A Muslim friend, himself a writer, suggested I read it. In one of the books, Out of the Silent Planet, a Cambridge philologist (that is an expert in the comparative study of languages), is kidnapped by a fellow professor and is taken on a fantastic voyage to Mars with the intention of offering him to the native population as a ‘ransom’ in exchange for gold. Our hero, however, makes friends with the beings that inhabit the red planet and finds that, under the guidance of beings visible to the human eye only as a patch of intense light, and who themselves act under the direction of The Old One, they live a life infinitely more civilised than their counterparts on earth.

There are three races of conscious beings on the planet: The Sorns, a tall race who live in the high places, are wise and have a knowledge of science. The Hrossa live in deep fertile crevices below the planet’s surface which can no longer support life. The third race are the Pfifltriggi, small quick people who live in the deep places of the planet. They are gifted artisans and metal smiths.

There is something reminiscent here of Norse and Germanic mythology, with its different orders or races of beings: Gods, giants, humans (both heroic and villainous), mythical beasts and dwarves, but something fundamentally different too. In the Norse tales, there is conflict, rivalry and division between the different races, fuelled by mutual contempt, suspicion and lust for wealth and power.

But on C.S. Lewis’s Mars, the three races live together in perfect harmony, sharing their talents and their food, and never exploiting each other or the planet’s resources. They acknowledge and appreciate their differences and see them as a source of strength. Their need for otherness is satisfied by their mutually supporting and interdependent relationship with the people of other races. Any other agenda is simply not in their hearts. This is the primordial condition.

I’d like to finish with my own understanding of what the challenge of pluralism is for Muslims. There is of course a challenge in pluralism for all mankind, and not just for Muslims, but I have to be honest and say that embracing Islam has powerfully sharpened my sense of how challenging co-existence in a secular society can be, and if it’s difficult for me as a Western Muslim it must often be much harder for those in ethnic minority communities.

I feel pained, embarrassed and deeply saddened by many things I see and hear in the West, especially those things which contradict the statement of the Prophet (saws) that “Every religion has a distinctive virtue, and that of Islam is modesty”. When I hear the presumptuous arrogance of phrases such as “infinite justice” or “a war without limits” applied to Western military action, and the vulgar techno-speak which describes Western objectives in terms of “full-spectrum dominance”, I hear the self-exalting superlatives of blasphemy, the attribution of Names of God to secular powers which have overstepped the limits imposed on them. Only God is infinite and without limits and all-powerful. There is only one Superpower. But what is a self-evident and sacred truth to us, something blindingly clear, something which governs our entire life, is not shared by the majority of the population. I have to say, in England least of all. A recent worldwide survey of religious beliefs found that there are fewer people in England with any religious or spiritual belief than any country in the entire world. We are living in the most secular country in the world, and I would add the most secular country probably at any time in human history. It’s easy to find many things that challenge and repel us and there’s a danger of becoming stuck in a negative, pessimistic and even apocalyptic mindset of hostile condemnation.

But that’s the point: it’s easy to do this. It’s always easier to condemn the vices of others. The Prophet (saws) said: “Refrain from seeing and speaking of the vices of mankind, which you know are in yourself.” It’s easy to point the finger at the evidence of gross egoism, narcissism, over-consumption, hedonism and the glamorisation of human vice which shout their presence at every turn in this culture.

And yet, I started this talk with the belief in the common ground that does exist between Islam and the Anglo-Saxon world. I believe that too. This is the paradox we have to face, and this is the challenge of pluralism. We have to strive to find that common ground, while at the same time accepting humbly that we can never see the whole picture - only God is all-seeing, and above all we have to pray that He may grant us greater understanding of His plan for mankind so that we may see it, in all its aspects, as a Mercy which covers everything.

In striving to find common ground, I would urge the following priorities:

First, we cannot begin to find it if we, as Muslims, are always disputing amongst ourselves. The Qur’an (8:46) says: “And fall not into disputes lest ye lose heart and your power depart…” and the Prophet (saws) said: “Mankind will not go astray after having found the right road, unless from disputation.”

The Qur’an also makes it very clear that it is argumentativeness which is one of the most crippling of human vices and the cause of spiritual blindness. Rivalry, suspicion, petty ambition and jostling for power amongst organisations also disempower the very Muslim communities they claim to represent, and can prevent Muslims from making the kind of contribution they should be making in the wider community as representatives of the civilisation of Islam. If Muslims cannot work together, how on earth can they ever hope to represent a deen given to all mankind?

It is the exhibition of disunity and parochial limitation which will also turn away the best minds and hearts from Islam, and even turn away people of intelligence and vision within Islam from working with Muslim organisations.

I did not embrace Islam to have my horizons limited to a single viewpoint or a parochial section of the community. Islam is for me the way to struggle with myself, to deepen my knowledge and my faith, to learn from every community, and to reach out to all the communities of mankind with the universal message of hope and mercy that Islam brings. The Prophet (saws) made it very clear that he was not sent to “curse the infidel” but as “a mercy to all mankind”.

And that brings me to the second and third of these priorities: to engage and to be more creative. The challenge now, at this moment of extraordinary opportunity for a new world order, is for Muslims to engage creatively with the whole of mankind.

It is not only copies of the Qur’an which have been running out in bookstores in the USA; there has also been a run on maps of the world! I’ve heard people comment sardonically that more Americans want to know where Afghanistan is, and it’s tempting for some, I know, to be patronising, even scornful, here about the stereotypes of American isolationism and ignorance of the world, and to say it’s high time that Americans began to engage with the rest of the world. But a National Opinion Poll, published last week I believe, also revealed that 83% of British people admit to total ignorance of Islam. And yet, Muslims cannot justly claim to be victims of other people’s ignorance if their own stance is one of exclusivity and isolation. I remember Tariq Ramadan at our “Muslims of Europe” conference last year appealing to Muslims to learn more about European histories.

And we shouldn’t confuse ignorance of Islam with the irrational hostility of Islamophobia any more than we should confuse ignorance of what makes the Western mind tick with Westophobia. We have to meet ignorance with our duty to dispel it through education and dialogue, and bound up with that is a desperate need for a more creative and imaginative approach. Yes, we need lawyers, accountants, and technology professionals, and we need them to work for the welfare and advancement of the Muslim community. But I dare to say that there is a pressing need for people who can engage in an open and creative way with the greater “community of communities”. We need visionary scholars at the cutting edge of discourses which address problems and solutions of universal significance for all communities, who can shake off the yoke of academic jargon to make their ideas accessible, and who can reformulate traditional ideas in fresh, modern language; we need more teachers, writers, presenters. We need environmentalists, people concerned about the planet, not just their own back yards. We need creative artists in every discipline, people who can reclaim beauty for Islam, and express the beauty of Islam for all mankind.

If we don’t like hostility to Islam in the media, then we should be working as journalists, writers and commentators to present the best face of Islam to a public hungry for enlightenment; we need more Muslim voices who can match the quality of comment coming from many people who are not even Muslims but have a profound sense of natural justice.

If we don’t like the misuse of creativity in the West, as for example in the entertainment and advertising industries and in contemporary art, then we should be mastering these media so that we can produce more uplifting material to nourish the human soul. That may mean that we have to learn how to tell good stories with engaging characters, and not rely merely on expounding truths in a heavily didactic way which simply doesn’t win the minds and hearts of young people who are growing up in a vividly visual culture. The fact is that only 15% of people learn best through verbal means. It doesn’t mean (as I heard suggested on one of the programmes in the BBC Islam UK series) that we have to sell out to the celebrity culture, as if Islam can only get its message across if it is associated with pop stars and sports champions. It doesn’t mean either that we have to submit to the triumph of style over substance and become obsessed with presentation, design and production values. We should never value the container over the content, the jug over the water. But it does mean that we have to understand how people learn and what prevents them from learning, how old formulations become worn out and need to be recast in forms which can be digested. Most importantly, it means that we must respond to the needs of a new generation of young Muslim men and women whose altruism is crying out for positive expression. Altruism which is not nourished by the finest examples of the Islamic tradition can turn into anger and ultimately into violence.
If we don’t rate the quality of education in schools, then we should be training as teachers and curriculum developers and engaging with the system to improve it; and not only in religious education; and not only in Muslim schools. For example, there is a conference next year in Harrogate, the World Conference on Thinking, the first time this major international conference has been held in this country. The very best educators and practitioners in the teaching of critical and creative thinking skills will be there. How many Muslim educators and academics will be there too? I have not seen any on the list of presenters. Have we nothing to say about thinking? I’d say we have something incredibly important to contribute from an Islamic perspective: a vision of thinking which does not limit it to personal or secular aims, such as increasing effectiveness and productivity in the workplace in the pressurised performance culture we see here in the west, but which sees it as a partner with faith and spirituality in the full development of human potential, the vision of Ibn Sina and Roger Bacon I took from President Izetbegovic’s book. Are we going to that conference to present such a vision of thinking? Never has there been a greater need for vision. What have we to say to the whole thinking community, whatever their faith, or lack of it?

A few weeks ago I saw an article in the Times Educational Supplement by the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks. It was an article expressing his concern for the pressure felt by British teachers - not Jewish teachers, whether in Jewish schools or state schools, but all teachers. What are we saying about social issues which affect the whole community? What have we got to say about the increasing loss of creativity in the state school system, about the obsession with quantitative assessment, about the marginalisation of artistic expression, physical education and contact with the natural world? What are we saying in response to solid research which has shown again and again that music education, whether vocal or instrumental, has a far greater effect on general learning capacity in many subject areas than computer-assisted learning? Yes, we should discuss the specific causes of the disaffection and disillusionment of Muslim pupils in schools, but what about the disillusionment felt by increasing numbers of pupils of every culture and faith? Do we know what causes this? Do we care?

Engaging with people also means trying to see what is good in their hearts. The Prophet (saws) said: “He who believes in one God and the life beyond, let him speak what is good or remain silent”.

Walid Saif, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Jordan, has said in a recent article on Muslim-Christian Dialogue in the journal Encounters, that “preoccupation with protecting a threatened identity , as is the case among many Muslims, often leads to the definition of the collective ‘self’ in terms of differences and contrasts” resulting in “enclosure and exclusion”. A truly secure Muslim is able to be inclusive and to focus on common and shared principles and values, to use common resources to tackle common problems and to contribute to solving them for the well-being of humanity. And he goes on: “One cannot but notice that religious discourse has been lagging behind secular humanistic discourse on major issues of both international and local concern, such as human rights, democracy and political participation, social justice, women’s rights and the environment. It seems we are often more concerned about defending and advocating our religious ideals, in opposition to the dominant secular tradition, than with drawing on and utilising our religious principles and values to produce practical initiatives to solve specific problems. Moral messages gain more credibility and communicate themselves more persuasively when they are put in the service of the people, without exclusion and without proselytism”. I would add to this: to engage is to be even-handed in matters of justice, to speak out against the cruel oppression of the Tibetan people as much as the oppression of Muslim minorities in China; to speak out against the murder of women in the name of “honour” as much as the crimes against women in Chechnya; to speak out against every form of tyranny, whether practised by non-Muslims or Muslims.
Those who threaten the extermination of “infidels” in the name of Islam offer us no vision of the future. Their only message to the Muslim world is whom to hate and condemn, not what to build or create - let alone how.

And that’s because they really don’t know much about what made Islamic civilisation great. The Muslim world reached the peak of its influence at the time when it inspired major advances in learning, in the fields of mathematics, science, medicine and philosophy. That is when Islam, imbued with a dynamic spirit of enquiry, was at its most open to the world, when it enriched, and was enriched by, the Christian, Greek and Jewish communities in its midst - those communities now stigmatised as infidels - and when it was actively trading with every corner of the world. Their closed, exclusive, hostile, inward-looking version of Islam - which treats women as cattle and all non-Muslims as enemies - reflects no period of greatness in Islam and will bring none. They have no vision and plan for their people.

And I contrast this in my mind with something I experienced in Sarajevo several years ago when I had the privilege to be involved in the reconstruction of the Primary Music School in Ilidza. At a presentation in their ruined concert hall, which had been burnt down through hatred of that dynamic and creative multicultural society which had made Sarajevo a bridge between East and West, hundreds of children who had been pupils at the school and who had come from all over Bosnia, stood along the ruined walls of the building and sang a song which moved us all to tears. The words were, in Bosnian, “Na rata ne bude”, “Let there be no war”.

And the appeal of these children distils the challenge of pluralism for all of us. We must build, contribute, participate, produce, engage, enrich and be enriched, envision a positive and merciful future, create something for our children, look outwards, open our minds and hearts to all the peoples of mankind. In the words of our beloved Prophet (saws): “All God’s creatures are His family; and he is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures”.

Footnotes 1. ‘Alija ‘Ali Izetbegovic, Islam Between East and West, American Trust Publications, 1994, page 273. 2. Diana L. Eck, Encountering God, Beacon Press, Boston, 1993, pages 191 et seq.

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This article was published in The American Muslim #8 before we had the website online.  The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder

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