The concept of pluralism is very much older than the origin of the term. Big empires and kingdoms have faced this reality. Muslims have also encountered this phenomenon during their rule in different parts of the world especially in Asia. Nowadays the discussions about pluralism only turn around the plural societies in Europe and America and the rich heritage of religio-cultural pluralism that prevailed for instance in India and the Islamic world are neglected deliberately.
Pluralism is both an ideology and a methodology. It deals with the questions of co-existence in a society/country which is home to many religions, cultures, languages and ethnic and racial groups. As an ideology, pluralism accepts and tolerates diversity; and as methodology it tries to solve the problems arising out of diversity, religious, cultural, linguistic, ethnic or racial.
The Muslim society has always been characterised by its pluralistic nature. The Madinah society set up by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be to him) was comprised of Persians, Abyssinians, diverse religious sects and ethnic groups. Jews and Christians also lived in Madinah. The later Umayyad and Abbasid periods also witnessed cultural and religious diversities. During the Ottoman period pluralism was far more alive in the Middle East as well as in Europe. Muslim rulers were very particular in maintaining the religious and cultural freedom of minorities. Full autonomy was given to them in their respective religions.
The particular feature of the pluralistic society under the Muslim rule was that Muslims were very generous in absorbing the good features of other societies. Muslims also took positive measures for the security and prosperity of the ethnic and religious minorities.
In the examples given above Muslims were politically pre-dominant in the society. The reverse has also happened as in the case of British rule in India where the Muslims were at the receiving end.
MODERN PLURALISTIC SOCIETIES
Today the pluralistic societies are formed or have come into being on an entirely different pattern. Two important aspects can be seen in them:
Political democracy is provided to all as it ensures general participation in the conduct of the state.
Modern plural societies are raised on non-religious or secular foundations. The nature is determined by the political and economical objectives.
Two major factors have worked and influenced in the formation of modern plural societies. They can be summarised as follows:
Unpredicted growth of technology and transport which facilitates the travel of people from one place to another. This includes businessmen, college students, jobseekers, etc. People of different behaviour, colour, shade, etc. have travelled from poorer countries to rich countries in search of better jobs and high standards of living.
People who went abroad didn’t have the intention to settle down there. But they changed their minds seeing the economic boom in these countries. The students also stayed back due to the attractive job opportunities in the developed countries.
The concept of pluralism in Islam can be understood by its general perspective on human society and mutual respect and regard for difference of views. The tradition or essence of the Holy Qur'an is of co-existence and respect for other religions and cultures. Allah says: There is no compulsion in matter of religion (2:236).
Differences and diversities in religious beliefs and concepts is an inalienable part of the design. Man is given freedom of thought and naturally it will give rise to various beliefs and thoughts. Allah says: And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed, all of them together. So, will you (O Muhammad) then compel mankind, until they become believers? (10:99)
The design of religio-cultural diversity is in the scheme of God. Islam believes in diversity, not extinction of other faiths and cultures. The Qur'an says: “And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Verily, in that are indeed signs for men of sound knowledge.” (30:22)
Muslims believe in the universality of prophecy which indicates Islam’s respect for all the religions. Islam stresses that Allah is the Lord and Cherisher of the world and He has sent messengers and prophets to the whole mankind for their guidance and they all came with the same message of God. The Qur'an says: “Verily! We have sent you with the truth, a bearer of glad tidings, and a warner. And there never was a nation but a warner had passed among them.” (35:24)
The divisions, linguistic, racial and others are not meant to decide or determine the status of the people or their position in the society. The Qur'an advances a picture of a society in which all humans will be equal. This equality will be on two bases:
All are the creations of a single God. This single God hasn’t set any criteria to differentiate between the people except that of piety or righteousness or fear of Allah.
All men are the children of a single parent. These children may be different in their economic or social status. But that doesn’t entitle them to look down upon one another on the basis of different status and positions in the society.
The freedom to hold different views and expressions is a part of the trial of the Lord. It is necessary condition of the trial. If this freedom is not granted then there is no meaning in the trial of mankind. Man has been given or bestowed with ability to think and ponder over the beautiful world, so that he might utilise them to reach his God. Man has also been endowed with attraction towards virtue and detachment towards evil in his soul. But God didn’t leave man like that alone. He sent down prophets from time to time to make him aware of the truth and guide him through the darkness. The trial is described in the Holy Qur'an as: (Verily! We have made that which is on earth as an adornment for it, in order that We may test them (mankind) as to which of them are best in deeds. [i.e. those who do good deeds in the most perfect manner, that means to do them (deeds) totally for Allâh’s sake and in accordance to the legal ways of the Prophet. (18:7)
Thus this concept of freedom of views and thoughts should never be usurped because this is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the violation of the Sunnah and the glorious practice of the Caliphs. However this granting of freedom doesn’t consider that all such views are equally valid and true.
In the same way the Holy Qur'an doesn’t negate the revealed religions completely. It only restores their lost truth. It corrects the distorted elements of the original truth. There are several examples which throw light on this verdict. Allah says: And when there came to them a Messenger from Allâh (i.e. Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be to him) confirming what was with them, a party of those who were given the Scripture threw away the Book of Allâh behind their backs as if they did not know. (2:101)
CONSTITUTION OF MADINAH
The constitution of Madinah formulated by the Prophet reveals the identity of pluralism in Islam. The following features can be noted in the constitution:
The central authority was with the Prophet. He had all the judicial, political and military authority over all the citizens of Madinah.
Full religious freedom to all citizens was guaranteed.
Those who constituted the body politic of Madinah were granted social, cultural, judicial and legal freedom.
With this one example we can come to the conclusion that neither the Qur'an nor the historical traditions of Muslims have ever been against religio-cultural diversity, plural co-existence and mutual co-operation. The society under Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be to him) in Madinah and the constitution framed for that society is a perfect indicator of this fact. The main obligation of the Muslim community is to strive to change the minds of the people so that they are made aware of Allah and restructure their lives according to His will. The path to bring change is not by conflicts or totally ignoring or withdrawing from the affairs of the society. But a pluralistic approach is the key to initiate this change. The examples of our prophet’s life and his companions are before us to lead us to this goal and we have nothing to do but to follow their footsteps.