Let me take this opportunity in thanking the Interfaith Coalition of Nashville organizers of this event for inviting me to talk about my religion. Your choice of me to represent millions of Muslims who now live in the USA in this inter-faith dialogue is both humbling and burdensome.
It is not easy to discuss about a religion that is not only the least understood of all major religions but is now considered to be on a collision course with the rest of the world. The offensive cartoon controversy has only heightened the mistrust and seemed to embolden those who have been selling the poisonous pill of ‘clash of civilizations.’ There is no denying that 9/11 has provided bigots, racists, and self-proclaiming ‘experts’ and ‘think tanks’ to define Islam in ways that only unmask their level of hatred and bigotry. The ‘Islam’ they define is simply unknown to my people.
Yet the hard fact is there are Muslims who come in different shades and colors, orientations or mindsets. Not all are saints nor are all mujahids in being able to control their lower instincts of anger, passion and ego. So we have the Zarqawis today as much as we had the Hashishyyin that had terrorized the Muslim world in the 12th and 13th centuries. And then there are those who believe that their suicidal attacks would set others free.
As the specter of violence has become a fact of life today, the temptation is too great to condemn an entire religious tradition for the senseless or desperate actions of a few. But that would be wrong. If we cannot condemn all faiths for the crimes of their adherents, we simply cannot have a different set of standards for Muslims. For example, if we cannot condemn Christianity for colonization and massacre of unarmed civilians across the globe during the last two millennia, including the massacre in Jonestown (Guyana) and Waco (USA), killings in Ireland, Uganda, Haiti and Liberia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Daghestan, Nagorno Karabach and Mindanao Islands (in the Philippines), and genocides in Congo, Rwanda, and in today’s Afghanistan and Iraq; if we cannot condemn Judaism for the crimes of Baruch Goldstein or Rabbi Meir Kahane’s group, or the war crimes of Israeli leaders –” Sharon, Olmert, Netanyahu and others – in Occupied Palestine and Lebanon; if we cannot condemn Hinduism for the murder of MK Gandhi, and massacre of thousands of Muslims in Kashmir, Mumbai, Assam and Gujarat, and the killings of Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka; if we cannot condemn Buddhism for the killing fields in Cambodia, or the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan (Myanmar), or the killings of Tamils in Sri Lanka and Muslim minorities in Thailand –” we simply have no right to condemn Islam for 9/11.
If a Muslim youth today appears to be frustrated and angry it is not because of the theology of Islam but due to his apparent inability as a human being to comprehend and/or tolerate monumental hypocrisy and double standards that he sees, plus the mistreatment of his fellow brethren as third-class citizens of this planet. From one continent to another, he sees how his fellow human beings are massacred, maimed and mutilated; how colossal abuses of human rights are routinely carried out against them. And yet there are none, not even their own leaders in the post-colonial nation-states, who speak and take action for them. It is a sad and humiliating experience for them.
Background on Islam
The entire history of mankind has been a class struggle between the forces of light and darkness, good and bad, truth and falsehood. The forces of goodness have struggled to bring about an ideal society that is just and balanced both inwardly and outwardly. Unfortunately, more often than not humanity has failed to find that equilibrium, balance and harmony between the outward and the inward, the external and the internal. The ideal that Islam has been seeking for the past fourteen centuries is also a universal one – the establishment of a just society. Truly, in this pursuit, the mission of Muhammad (S), the Prophet of Islam, was very similar to those of all the prophets and sages that came before him.
Islam came as a guiding light into a dark world –” a world that needed a lightning bolt to wake up from its deep slumber. It came in an age of truth-defying Ignorance when the worship of one True God from China and Japan in the East to Morocco and Iceland in the West was replaced by worship of myriads of demigods. There were false notions of superiority and egotism on the basis of race, color, tribe and ethnicity. Islam came to a nation that boasted of its depth of corruption and debauchery in social and moral issues. Historically, Islam came after the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of the ‘dark ages.’ In the nearby Persian Empire, there was a lot of political bickering for power and in far-away Roman Empire, there were signs of decadence everywhere, and in Arabia, the land that was supposed to reshape the destiny of mankind, its people were devoid of compassion and moral values.
But it was in Arabia, at the confluence of the three great continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, that Muhammad (S) – the Prophet of Islam, a Meccan from the illustrious family of the Quraysh, a descendant of the Babylonian Abraham, and the Egyptian Hagar – was born in 570 CE (or 53 BH of the Muslim calendar). And here it was that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (S) in Arabic when he was 40 years old (in 13 BH). Coming into a world that was stained by corruption and disintegration, Islam provided a unique pattern that was unknown in the entire history of man-kind. Islam provided three basic elements – faith in one God (Allah), reform of self and reform of the society at large. Islam remained as a religious commitment, a socio-economic-political program, but above all a vehicle for the ‘continuous reform’ of the society.
The subject I want to discuss here is: what does Islam say about peaceful co-existence with peoples of other faiths? Does Islam believe in diversity, multi-culture and pluralism? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic yes. In what follows, I shall quote from the Qur’an to support my claim.
Islam rejects racism and preaches alternative criteria for God’s people:
Islam rejects the notion that God is biased or partial to a particular race or tribe, and that His Mercy is locked up to a certain group. Allah says, “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.” (Qur’an 49:13)
With such profound statements in the Qur’an, Islam was able to wipe out age-old ethnocentric notions of superficial superiority and exclusive nobleness of mankind. Challenging the claims of the egocentric people who claimed that none shall enter paradise unless he belongs to their race and ethnicity, the Qur’an says, “Bring your proof if you are truthful.” (Qur’an, 2:111) As to the true criteria for such a qualification, the Qur’an proclaims, “Nay, but whosoever submits himself to Allah and he is a doer of good, for him there shall be his reward with his Lord, on such shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.” (Qur’an, 2:112)
Islam preaches unity of mankind:
The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes the unity of mankind, i.e., they come from the same parents: “Mankind were but one community; then they differed…” (10:19)
Prophet Muhammad (S) in his farewell Hajj sermon delivered on the 9th day of Dhul-Hijjah, 10 A.H. in the ‘Uranah valley of Mount Arafat in Makkah, said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”
No monopoly in God’s message:
The Qur’an says, “And there is not a nation but a warner has passed among them.” (Qur’an 35:24)] That is, Allah, in His infinite wisdom, has sent prophets and messengers to all the nations for their guidance. [See also Qur’an 2:213 and 10:37]
The call of the Qur’an is a call to unity of belief: “He has laid down for you the religion which He enjoined upon Noah, and which We revealed to you, and which We enjoined upon Abraham, Moses and Jesus: Establish the religion, and be not divided therein.” (Qur’an, 42:13) Further: “Lo! This, your religion, is one religion, and I am your Lord, so worship Me. And they have broken their religion among them, (yet) all are returning unto Us.” (21:92-93)
Islam presents itself as a way to reconcile the differences between Jews and Christians. The compromise offered by Islam affirms common elements between Judaism and Christianity, and accepts Moses and Jesus Christ (AS) as two of the greatest prophets of all time, sent for guidance of humanity. Islam accepts the virgin birth of Jesus and considers both Mary and Jesus (AS) as chaste and pious.
To have faith and to be a faithful is to believe and put one’s beliefs into action. The Qur’an says: “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, righteousness is rather one who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Book, the apostles, and gives his wealth out of love for Him to the kindred and the orphans and the poor and tire wayfarer and the needy and for those in bondage, and established prayer and pays zakat and those who fulfill their promise when they make a promise and the patient ones in distress and affliction and in the time of war. These are they who are the Truthful and these are they who are the pious.” (Qur’an, 2:177)
The Qur’an epitomizes the concept of plurality when it proclaims: "Verily We sent down the Torah in which there is guidance and light…" (Qur’an, 5:44)
"And We caused Jesus son of Mary to follow in their footsteps confirming the Torah which was before him and We gave him the Evangel in which was guidance and light…" (Qur’an 5:46).
“Verily, those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there shall be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.” (Qur’an, 2: 62)
Islam abhors coercion and intolerance:
Islam does not believe in coercion and intolerance, as is clear from the Qur’anic verse 2:256 “la ikraha fid-din” (meaning: there is no compulsion in religion). Belief or faith is a thing that people must choose for themselves. That is why Allah has not forced anyone to be a true believer and has given him the free will to choose between various options. The Qur’an says: “Say: ‘The truth is from your Lord’: Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it).” [18:29] Religious aggressors are threatened with a ‘humiliation’ in this world and a ‘mighty chastisement’ (2:114) in the Hereafter. Churches, monasteries, synagogues and mosques, according to the Qur’an, are all places of worship. (Qur’an 22: 40) The Qur’an categorically says, “To you be your religion, to me my religion.” (109:6)
The prophet Muhammad (S) was repeatedly told not to feel bad when he was rejected by some people: “And if they deny you, those before them also denied. Their messengers came unto them with clear proofs, and with Psalms and the Scripture giving light.” (Qur’an 35:25) Muhammad (S) duty was only to convey the message: “If then they turn away, We have not sent you (Muhammad) as a guard over them. Your duty is only to convey (the message)…” (Qur’an 42:48) In another place, likewise, the Qur’an says, “And say, ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whosoever wants let him believe and whosoever wants let him deny.'” (18:29)
All these verses make it clear that there is no room for coercion or compulsion in matters of faith.
Islam welcomes diversity in matters of faith:
Islam teaches that human diversity is a sign of God’s mercy and a portent for men of knowledge: “And of His (God’s) signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors.” (Qur’an 30:22)
The Qur’an accepts the reality of difference and diversity within humanity. It gives the impression that diversity is part of the divine plan: “If the Lord had willed, He would have made mankind into a single nation…” (11:118).
The Qur’an recognizes the legitimate multiplicity of religious convictions and laws, as can be seen from the verse: “To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what He has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.” (5:49)
Muslims are therefore told to proclaim: “Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered (as Muslims).” (2:136)
It is because of such lofty notions of diversity and tolerance that the Islamic civilization was pluralistic and unusually tolerant of various social and religious denominations, something that was simply unthinkable elsewhere in the middle ages. Jewish historians testify to the fact that, had it not been for the protection and tutelage provided by Muslim rulers, Jews could not have survived in the Middle Ages. It was all too natural for European Jewry to find refuge among Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire when Christian Europe was resorting to inquisition, pogroms and holocaust to exterminate them. Muslim rulers never interfered with the religion of their subjects either. There was never anything like the inquisition or the fires of Smithfield. Thus a number of small Christian sects, regarded as heretical by the larger sects, which would inevitably have been exterminated if left to the mercies of the larger sects whose power prevailed in Christendom, were protected and preserved by the power of Islam. Even to this very day, there are groups like the Mountain Jews, Yazidis and Sabaeans (Sabians) that are surviving with their culture and religion intact.
Today we stand on the carcass of religion. Many religious leaders have become the vultures who devour our corpse. They breed hatred and intolerance. And then there are the secular fundamentalists who would only have it their way.
Naturally, there is a debate today what is worse: a secular fundamentalist or a religious fanatic? In my opinion, both are bad. As much as the former needs to respect religious sensibility of others, the latter needs to inculcate God-consciousness that helps him to tolerate other human beings for “if your Lord willed, all on the earth would have believed, in total; will you then compel them to believe?” (Qur’an 10:99) It was that easy for Him.
While ignorance is bliss, little knowledge is dangerous. Nearly 70 years ago, Marmaduke Pickthall, the English poet and translator of the Qur’an said, “If Europe had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom in those days [of the Crusades] those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension.” [Madras Lectures on Islam, (1927)]
I wish I could say that situation has improved in this age of information super-highways. Alas, it has not! My hope is that inter-faith programs like this would help peace-loving people of this planet to come together to fight and oppose bigotry and intolerance in whatever shade they come.
Thank you all for listening to my speech. May we all find and work towards peace.
Author’s note: The Interfaith Coalition of Nashville organized this year’s interfaith conference in the Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA. Judaism was represented by Dr. Donna Whitney, Christianity by Dr. Tom Davis, Hinduism by Dr. Howard J. Resnick (HD Goswami), and Buddhism by Professor Win Myint. I represented Islam. The conference was opened by Dr. Jawaid Ahsan. Dr. Charles Hembrick, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Vanderbilt University, moderated the conference.
Note:. In the Qur’anic commentaries it is written that an Ansar companion of the Prophet (S), who had previously been a polytheist, had two sons who had become Christians. He went to the Prophet (S) and said to him: “O Messenger of Allah! What can I do to these two sons of mine that have become Christians? Do you give me permission to force them to leave their religion and become Muslims?” The Prophet (S) said: “No! There is no compulsion in religion.” [Jihad by Morteza Mutahhari, translated by Mohammad Salman Tawheedi]
* Speech delivered at the Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN on March 11, 2006