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.