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Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Diversity in Religion 

Some say the Quran speaks approvingly of the diversity of religion, see Surah 5, verse 48, which reads as follows: “To thee We sent the scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but [His plan is] to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute…” 

There is little scope for doubt here: the command is to strive with others in virtues and no mention is made of fighting them!  

For a fair discussion of the suggested topic, consideration of a few general principles of Islam will be of use:  

First of all, understand the Muslim position that the Quran is the guidance of God revealed to Muhammad (pbuh) in the various contexts of the events in his life. Most of the verses are clearly understandable; but there are quite a few whose significance can be understood only in the light of the actual contexts, in which the verses were revealed. Once the verse is put in its context and its historical background is understood, it becomes clear and makes sense.  

Some of the principles underlined in the Quran and relevant to our discussion on religious freedom and diversity are as follows:  

There is only one God, as the Quran says in Surah 112:“Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He does not beget, nor is He begotten; and there is none like Him.” 

Mankind is one, as the Quran says in Surah 49, verse 13: “O mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other [not that you may despise each other]. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is [he who is] the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted [with all things].” 

Muslims believe in all prophets and their scriptures, as the Quran says in Surah 2, verse 136: “Say: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma`il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to [all] prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we submit to Allah [in Islam]”. 

God does not do any injustice, as the Quran says in Surah 36, verse 54: “Then, on that Day, not a soul will be wronged in the least, and ye shall but be repaid the meeds of your past deeds.” 

Also, in Surah 45, verse 22: “Allah created the heavens and the earth for just ends, and in order that each soul may find the recompense of what it has earned, and none of them shall be wronged.” 

God allows fighting in cases where people are ‘wronged’, as in Surah 22, verse 39: “To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight], because they are wronged;- and verily, Allah is Most Powerful for their aid...” 

The use of force is ruled out in matters of religion, as the Quran says in Surah 2, verse 256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error…” 

Also, in Surah 18, verse 29: “Say: "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject [it].” 

The best way to counter Evil is with Good, and not with Evil itself, as in Surah 41, verse 34: “Goodness and evil can never be equal. Repel [evil] with good: then will he between whom and you was hatred become as it were your friend and intimate!” 

In the light of the above verses, we can move on to verse 191 in Surah 2 and verse 5 in Surah 9. In fact, for a fuller understanding of the first verse quoted, we have to see the verse previous to that too, which is Surah 2, verse 190:“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah does not love transgressors.” 

It is clear that the permission for fighting is given here to the Muslims to defend themselves; and even there, they are warned against transgressing limits.  

Secondly, in verse 191, the reason for fighting is made clear, by the words: *{turn them out from where they have turned you out}* and *{persecution and oppression are worse than slaughter.}* When you quote only the second verse, the command of God looks unjust, which it is not.  

Let us now see the background in which these verses were revealed:  

During the first thirteen years of his prophetic mission, Muhammad (pbuh) and his followers were subjected to the most brutal persecution by the Quraish tribe of Makkah. They were even forced to live in a valley adjacent to Makkah, subject to a very severe form of boycott. Subsequently they were driven out of their homes, all their property confiscated, and many of them were tortured and killed; and they would all have been massacred if they had not escaped to Medina.  

In Medina, the Muslims were received very honourably by the people of that city, and eventually Muhammad (pbuh) was accepted as a leader of the communities there.  Hearing of the popularity of the prophet in Medina, the Makkans were upset; for they expected a campaign from Medina to take revenge on them. Fearing this, they wanted to destroy Muhammad and “his” Islam!  

There were some events, which intensified this fear; all of which prompted the Makkans to gather a powerful army and march towards Medina. At this time, Muhammad (pbuh) and his followers could have fled to some other city to escape the Makkan army; for the Muslims were only one-third of the large army that were marching towards them. Also, they were ill equipped for war. But at this time, God’s command came to Muhammad (pbuh) to stand his ground and fight. It was in this context permission to fight was given.  

This battle took place at Badr, where the Muslims who were only 313 persons and who had very little war equipment - by the standards of those days - defeated a well-equipped army of a thousand fighters from Makkah. This was a war between the forces of truth and falsehood; and truth won. After this battle, the Makkans did not remain idle; their pride was wounded, and they waged many more battles with the Muslims.  

Meanwhile, the Muslims were growing in numbers and strength in Medina. Under divine guidance, the prophet (pbuh) was able to form a society and a government in Medina. Its constitution was the Quran; its laws were derived from the Quran. It was a truly Islamic government, which had to make provisions for those who had not become Muslims. Those who did not become Muslims were not compelled to become Muslims; but naturally, they were asked to obey the laws of the government.  

Some of the problems faced by the Muslims, as a political community, are discussed in Surah 9.

One major question is what the Muslims should do if the enemies break faith and commit treachery. This was with reference to the pagans’ breaking of the treaties made between them and the Muslims. No nation can go on with a treaty, if the other nation violates it at will! This is evident in verse 5 of Surah 9: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem [of war]; but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and pay zakah, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” 

The first clause in the verse refers to the time-honoured Arab custom of a period of warning and waiting given to the offenders, after a clear violation. That is, they will be given four months time to repair the damage done or make peace. But, if nothing happens after the expiry of these forbidden months, what should be done? This is what the present verse says.  

According to this verse, fighting must be resumed until one of the two things happens; either the enemy should be vanquished by relentless fighting [that is what is meant by “then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem [of war]}*; or they should *{repent, establish prayers and pay zakah”… etc.  

This is one of those verses of the Quran, which are misunderstood when quoted out of context. We must understand that this fighting was against a people; the pagans who forced the prophet and his companions to leave, not only their own homes, but all their property and even their hometown of Makkah to Medina. Once the Muslims were organized into a community in those lawless times, the rules to be followed by the Muslims were clearly laid down, even in the matter of war.  

This verse is particularly about the rule of law. Once the Islamic government is established with Medina as headquarters, it was the duty of the citizens to follow the law of the land. The Muslims had to pay zakah, according to the Shariah, while the non-Muslims were required to pay the jizya - a tax in lieu of the Muslim zakah. To deny this tax to the government is open defiance of the government and it should be countered with punitive steps. This is a principle followed in all modern governments. The choice is either to become a Muslim and obey all Islamic regulations or to continue as non-Muslim, paying jizya and being subject to the government.  

The points to be noted here are as follows:  

As stated in Quran 5: 48, religious diversity is tolerated, though not recommended. This is because Allah’s command is for all humans to be united in obeying Him, in all paths of life. But, no force is to be used in the matter of religious belief or practice.  

God does not ask the Muslims to fight the unbelievers for the reason that they are unbelievers. It was because they were the persecutors or aggressors that fighting against them became necessary. Also, it is clearly stated that the permission for fighting is given only until they cease hostilities.  

As is evident from the above two points, that there is no contradiction in the Quran on its stand on religious diversity.

 
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