September 16, 2010


The Place of Tolerance in Islam:
On reading the Qur’an—and misreading it. (Khaled Abou El Fadl, DECEMBER/JANUARY 2001/2002, Boston Review)

The puritans construct their exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading Qur’anic verses in isolation, as if the meaning of the verses were transparent—as if moral ideas and historical context were irrelevant to their interpretation. In fact, however, it is impossible to analyze these and other verses except in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message.

The Qur’an itself refers to general moral imperatives such as mercy, justice, kindness, or goodness. The Qur’an does not clearly define any of these categories, but presumes a certain amount of moral probity on part of the reader. For instance, the Qur’an persistently commands Muslims to enjoin the good. The word used for “the good” is ma’ruf, which means that which is commonly known to be good. Goodness, in the Qur’anic discourse, is part of what one may call a lived reality—it is the product of human experience and constructed normative understandings. Similarly, the Qur’anic term for kindness is ihsan, which literally means to beautify and improve upon. But beautification or improving upon can have meaning only in the context of a certain sociological understanding and practice.

In a further example, as to justice, the Qur’an states: “O you who believe, stand firmly for justice, as witnesses for God, even if it means testifying against yourselves, or your parents, or you kin, and whether it is against the rich or poor, for God prevails upon all. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God knows what you do.” 6 The idea that Muslims must stand up for justice even against their own self-interests is predicated on the notion that human beings are capable of achieving a high level of moral agency. As agents, Muslims are expected to achieve a level of moral conscientiousness, which they will bring to their relationship with God. In regards to every ethical obligation, the Qur’anic text assumes that readers will bring a pre-existing, innate moral sense to the text. Hence, the text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text. The meaning of the religious text is not fixed simply by the literal meaning of its words, but depends, too, on the moral construction given to it by the reader. So if the reader approaches the text without moral commitments, it will almost inevitably yield nothing but discrete, legalistic, technical insights.

Similarly, it is imperative to analyze the historical circumstances in which specific Qur’anic ethical norms were negotiated. Many of the institutions referenced in the Qur’an—such as the poll tax or the formation of alliances with non-Muslims—can be understood only if the reader is aware of the historical practices surrounding the revelation of the text. By emptying the Qur’an both of its historical and moral context, the puritan trend ends up transforming the text into a long list of morally non-committal legal commands.

The Qur’anic discourse, for instance, can readily support an ethic of diversity and tolerance. The Qur’an not only expects, but even accepts the reality of difference and diversity within human society: “O humankind, God has created you from male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous.” 7 Elsewhere, the Qur’an asserts that diversity is part of the Divine intent and purpose in creation: “If thy Lord had willed, He would have made humankind into a single nation, but they will not cease to be diverse. . . And, for this God created them [humankind].” The classical commentators on the Qur’an did not fully explore the implications of this sanctioning of diversity, or the role of peaceful conflict resolution in perpetuating the type of social interaction that would result in people “knowing each other.” Nor does the Qur’an provide specific rules or instructions about how “diverse nations and tribes” are to acquire such knowledge. In fact, the existence of diversity as a primary purpose of creation, as suggested by the verse above, remained underdeveloped in Islamic theology. Pre-modern Muslim scholars did not have a strong incentive to explore the meaning and implications of the Qur’anic endorsement of diversity and cross-cultural intercourse. This is partly because of the political dominance and superiority of the Islamic Civilization, which left Muslim scholars with a sense of self-sufficient confidence. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the Islamic civilization was pluralistic and unusually tolerant of various social and religious denominations. Working out the implications of a commitment to human diversity and mutual knowledge under contemporary conditions requires moral reflection and attention to historical circumstance: precisely what is missing from puritan theology and doctrine.

Other than a general endorsement of human diversity, the Qur’an also accepted the more specific notion of a plurality of religious beliefs and laws. Although the Qur’an clearly claims that Islam is the Divine Truth, and demands belief in Muhammad as the final messenger in a long line of Abrahamic prophets, it does not completely exclude the possibility that there might be other paths to salvation. The Qur’an insists on God’s unfettered discretion to accept in His mercy whomever He wishes. In a rather remarkable set of passages that, again, have not been adequately theorized by Muslim theologians, the Qur’an recognizes the legitimate multiplicity of religious convictions and laws. In one such passage, for example, the Qur’an asserts: “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 [in the Hereafter], and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.” On this and other occasions the Qur’an goes on to state that it is possible for non-Muslims to attain the blessing of salvation: “Those who believe, those who follow Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief.” Significantly, this passage occurs in the same chapter that instructs Muslims not to take the Jews and Christians as allies. How can these different verses be reconciled?

If we read the text with moral and historical guidance, we can see the different passages as part of a complex and layered discourse about reciprocity and its implications in the historical situation in Mohammed’s Medina. In part, the chapter exhorts Muslims to support the newly established Muslim community in Medina. But its point is not to issue a blanket condemnation against Jews and Christians (who “shall have their reward with their Lord”). Instead, it accepts the distinctiveness of the Jewish and Christian communities and their laws, while also insisting that Muslims are entitled to the same treatment as those other communities. Thus it sets out an expectation of reciprocity for Muslims: while calling upon Muslims to support the Prophet of Islam against his Jewish and Christian detractors, it also recognizes the moral worth and rights of the non-Muslim “other.”

The challenge most often invoked against an argument for tolerance in Islam is the issue of jihad. Jihad, especially as portrayed in the Western media, is often associated with the idea of a holy war that is propagated in the name of God against the unbelievers. Therefore, jihad is often equated with the most vulgar images of religious intolerance.

At the most rudimentary level, the Qur’an itself is explicit in prohibiting any form of coerced conversions to Islam. It contends that truth and falsity are clear and distinct, and so whomever wishes to believe may do so, but no duress is permitted in religion: “There is no compulsion in matter of faith.” Of course, this response is incomplete—even if forced conversions to Islam are prohibited, aggressive warfare to spread Islamic power over non-believers might still be allowed. Does the Qur’an condone such expansionist wars?

Interestingly, Islamic tradition does not have a notion of holy war. “Jihad” simply means to strive hard or struggle in pursuit of a just cause, and according to the Prophet of Islam, the highest form of jihad is the struggle waged to cleanse oneself from the vices of the heart. Holy war (in Arabic al-harb al-muqaddasah) is not an expression used by the Qur’anic text or Muslim theologians. In Islamic theology, war is never holy; it is either justified or not, and if it is justified, those killed in battle are considered martyrs. The Qur’anic text does not recognize the idea of unlimited warfare, and does not consider the simple fact of the belligerent’s Muslim identity to be sufficient to establish the justness of his cause. In other words, the Qur’an entertains the possibility that the Muslim combatant might be the unjust party in a conflict.

Moreover, while the Qur’an emphasizes that Muslims may fight those who fight them, it also insists that Muslims may not transgress. 12 Transgression is an ambiguous term, but on several occasions the Qur’an intimates that in order not to transgress, Muslims must be constrained by a requirement of proportionality, even when the cause is just. For instance, it states, “Mandated is the law of equality, so that who transgresses against you, respond in kind, and fear God, and know that God is with those who exercise restraint.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 16, 2010 6:38 AM
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