Islam and pluralism

Intolerance has 'contaminated' both Islam and Christianity

It is often argued - by both Islamist fundamentalists and secularists - that Islam and democracy don’t mix. Yet pluralism - that underpins democracy - is a corner stone of Islam.

This commitment to pluralism can be gleaned from the Prophet’s conduct in Medina where he emerged as the city’s leader. Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims were protected (dhimmi) and allowed complete social and political participation in society and the ability to follow their own religious beliefs and customs.

The pains by which the Prophet went to highlight the common ground between Islam and the Abrahamic traditions has been lost by modern fundamentalists and orientalists. There is no divine book, other than the Qur’an, that places so much emphasis on respecting the views and beliefs of others.

"There can be no compulsion in religion" (2:256) declares the Qur’an highlighting the freedom of belief and conscience in Islam . "We believe in what has been revealed to us, just as we believe in what has been revealed to you [Jews and Christians]; our God and your God are the same, and it is to Him we submit" (29:46)

As the Muslim empires expanded after the death of the Prophet, far from forcing people to convert, Muslim scholars extended dhimmi (protected people) status to other non-Muslim religions, such as the Zoroastrians of Iran and Hindu sects of India as they fell within Muslim domains.

The presence of churches, synagogues, temples and idols across the Muslim-controlled world is a tribute to Islam’s respect for pluralism. It is worth noting that Muslim empires spread not because of the 'Islam and the sword' myth, but in the same way as any political empire does.

It is however also true that as Muslim empires became ever more powerful, interpretations of Islamic texts became increasingly arrogant: so instead of seeing the Qur’an as supplementing what had come before, it was presented as superseding previous books.

This was intended to differentiate Islam from previous religions and establish its own independence - similar to Christianity disassociating itself from Jewish practices to carve out is own identity, culminating in the Christian birth of anti-Semitism by demonising Jews as the killers of Jesus.

The impact of history on the interpretation of Islam is so often understated. Take for example the traditional ‘Islamic’ notion of the world being divided into two: land of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the land of disbelief (dar ul-kufr).

These notions are not rooted in the Qur’an but were latter day political interpretations developed during the time of the Crusades to rally Muslim support to eject the invaders. (The Christians meanwhile were busy demonising the Prophet and Islam to rally support on their side).

The fact that this binary view of the world is still held by Muslim fundamentalists shows how they struggle to shake off the narrative of history from the values of Islam. (The fact that some in the ‘Christian’ world still suffer from this myopia shows how the problem of intolerance has contaminated both traditions).

Islam has always been a religion of pluralism and diversity. Just because there is the One God, it does not follow that there is just one interpretation.

Asim Siddiqui is Chairman of the City Circle, which provides a place for British Muslim and non-Muslim communities to engage. More details can be found on www.thecitycircle.com. He works as a forensic accountant.
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder