Islam: Pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue
In the recent past several seminars were organized in the country on interfaith dialogue. These seminars made great contribution in strengthening already existing communal harmony and exposing the hollowness of the propaganda of the interested quarter to malign and defame Bangladesh. These seminars however failed to address the key issues of misperception of the Muslims and non-Muslim alike. Here in this article I shall make an attempt to address some of the texts which hitherto have been misunderstood.
No doubt Islam stands for pluralistic order. Pluralism is the design of Allah. Al Quran states: If it had been your Lord’s will, they would all have believed, all who are on the earth. Will you then compel mankind against their will to believe [10:99]? In another verse Al Quran states: To each among you have We prescribed a law and a clear way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in good deeds [5:48].
An examination of the texts of these two verses makes it clear that diversity is the will of Allah. The text of the aforementioned verses also makes it clear that compulsion in the matter of faith is forbidden which is also corroborated by another verse of the Quran which states: Let there be no compulsion in religion [2:256].
A critical look of the text of the verse 5:48 manifests that the purpose of these differences is to test, what we do with the revelations and how we behave with the precepts and teachings of Islam and who strive as in a race in good deeds. Diversity of religions, nations and peoples is a test and the teachings of Islam require that we manage the differences and live a peaceful harmonious life in this world. This is pluralism.
Al Quran states: And did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief [2:251]. In another verse Al Quran states: Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques wherein the name of Allah is mentioned much would surely have been pulled down [22:40].
The teaching of the aforementioned two verses is very significant in the present world context. The ever lasting teachings, the universal dimension of the message of Islam of these two verses are that if there are no differences between people, if power is concentrated in the hands of one group alone, be it one nation or one race the earth would be corrupt because human beings require others to control and limit their irresponsible impulse and behavior for expansion, supremacy and dominance. Verse 22:40 indicates that the scheme of Allah is to protect monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques which establishes pluralistic religious nature of Islam.
Islam is basically a tolerant religion. The difference between peoples, nations, races and religions may lead to conflict and therefore mans’ responsibility remains in establishing peace and tranquility in the society. It is important that a balance is established in the society based on mutual respect, love and compassion rejecting all types of arrogance, whether it is material or intellectual and establishing such balance between different nations and communities is possible only by sharing knowledge about each other. Al Quran states: 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 [49:13]. Knowing and respecting each other and dialogue and communication is the best way to avoid mistrust and overcome differences.
Establishing harmonious relations between peoples have been repeatedly emphasized in Islam. Al Quran states: Allah forbids you not with regard to those who fight you not for your faith nor drive you out of your homes from dealing kindly and justly with them for Allah loves those who are just [60:8]. In another verse Al Quran states: Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious [16:125]. In another verse Al Quran states: And dispute you not with the People of the Book except in the best way, unless it be with those of them who do wrong [29:46].
Confusion also exists among scholars and general people alike as to the meaning of the words Kafir, Kuffar, Kafara, Kafaru, Yakfuru which are commonly misunderstood both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as being disbeliever, infidels or miscreants. But the word has also been used in the Quran in the sense of deny, deniers, denial, denied. Verse 3:28 states: Let the believers (Muslims) not take as allies the deniers (Kafirin) rather than believers. Arabic notion of Kufr or Kafir has often been mistranslated. Etymologically the general meaning of Kafir could be rendered as a denier with a veiled heart, veiled, shut off in their hearts to the extent that they deny the presence of the Creator. The dictionary meaning of Kufr also includes hide and cover up.
But Kafir may also indicate one who denies the evidence of the truth as is apparent in the revelation. Iblis knew the existence of Allah as he spoke to Him, but he refused to obey. Al Quran states: He (Iblis) refused, became proud and was among the deniers (min al kafirin) [2:34]. It would be pointless to say that Iblis, who had a dialogue Allah Subhanahu Wa ‘Taala, did not believe in Him. This is neither logical nor a consistent translation.
So to apply the term Kafir to Jews and Christians is justified as they do not recognize the Quran as the last revealed book. They deny (Yakfuru) the truth of the message and its Prophet, but this does not mean we call them miscreants in the sense that their faith in God is not recognized, which would be an inaccurate assertion [Tariq Ramadan (Professor of Philosophy at the College of Geneva and Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland), Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004, pp 206].
Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, the greatest poet-philosopher of Islam, affirmed that Hindus could not be considered as kafirs as they believe in the supremacy of God [Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, Gayatri Mantra, Urdu tr., Introduction quoted in Rafiq Zakaria’s Indian Muslims Where have they gone wrong?, Popular Prakashan and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, September 2004, p 246].
It is apparent that these scholars do not feel it appropriate to call Jews, Christians, Hindus etc. as Kafirs because they do not deny the existence Almighty God. They are of course non-Muslims.
The pluralistic nature of Islam is evident from the fact that the duty of a Muslim is only educating and passing the knowledge of Islam, near and far. Al Quran states: And admonish your nearest kinsmen [26: 214]. The responsibility ends with educating, transmitting and communicating faith. To pass on the message is to call and invite people to the way of Allah. Conversion is something that only Allah can alone accomplish. It is an affair of the heart and does not lie within anyone else’s purview and jurisdiction. It is only the prerogative of Allah. This is the real meaning of Litakunu Shuhadaa Ala Al Nass- bear witness to the message before mankind.
The pluralistic nature of Islam is further established by its principle of justice in all circumstances, in relation to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Al Quran states: O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do [5:8]. The principle of justice in Islam constitutes the fundamental norm after faith in the oneness of Allah (Tawhid). This principle takes precedence over one’s own interest, the interest of relatives, interest of race, interest of nations and so on. If, for example, Muslims are called to participate in a war that is unjust or based solely on the longing for power, conquer land or control of territory or resources and other interests, they should not take part in such a war. Muslims are not allowed to fight for money, wealth or resources, grab power or occupy territory. They must avoid oppressive war.
Muslims cannot participate in unjust war, whatever is the identity or religion of the enemy. Belonging to particular faith does not mean that Muslims are required to accept or support injustice simply because it is committed by another member of the same faith. On the contrary, Muslims, according to the teachings of Islam, are required to oppose and even stop such injustice even if it is committed by another Muslim. Prophet Muhammad said: Help your brother whether he is unjust or the victim of injustice. One of the companions asked: Messenger of Allah. I understand helping someone who is the victim of injustice, but how should I help one who is unjust? The Prophet replied: Prevent him from being unjust. That is how you will help him [Bukhari. Muslim]. Another Hadith reports Prophet Muhammad said: Whoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hands; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart- and that is the weakest of faith [Muslim quoted in An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, tr. Ezzedin Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davies, Holy Quran Publishing House, Damascus, 1977, p110]
To erase the misgiving from the peoples’ mind another issue that need to be addressed in interfaith dialogue is the truth of the claim of killing of 400 to 900 Jews tribesmen of Banu Qurayza in cold blood and later buried in trenches in Medina by Prophet Muhammad for breaking treaty and joining enemy ranks as related by Ibn Ishaq in Sira, the biography of the Prophet. This narration of Ibn Ishaq, as examined and proved hereunder, is a later innovation and challenged by the scholars.
Imam Malik, a contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, denounced Ibn Ishaq as an outright liar [Uyun al-Athar, 1, 2] and imposter [ibid, 1, 16] for transmitting such stories. Tabari, nearly 150 years after Ibn Ishaq, doubted that Prophet dig trenches. Ibn al-Qayyin in Zad al-Ma’ad ignores altogether the crucial question of numbers killed. Ibn Kathir even seems to have general doubt in his mind about the narration of Ibn Ishaq [Tabari, Tarikh, 1, 1499 (where the reference is to al-Waqidi, Maghazi, 11, 513); Zad al-Maad (ed. T. A. Taha, Cairo, 1970), 11, 82; Ibn Kathir, IV, 118]. The attitude of scholars and historians to Ibn Ishaq’s version of the story has been either one of complacency, sometimes mingled with uncertainty, or at least in two important cases, one of condemnation and outright rejection.
One of the weakness of the authors of Sira including Ibn Ishaq is that, unlike the compiler of Hadith who applied critical criteria for checking accuracy of the Hadith, they are not meticulous and did not apply the strict rules of traditions, did not provide chain of authorities, did not verify whether the narrators are trustworthy or not and therefore Sira cannot be really taken as absolutely authentic.
The reference of the Quran to this incidence is also very brief: Some you killed, some you took prisoner [33:26]. Scholars are of opinion that the reference of Quran as to the killing can only be those who were actually killed in the fighting.
The truth of killing of 400 to 900 Jews tribesmen of Banu Qurayza by the Prophet is rejected by scholars as Islam permits punishing only those who are responsible for sedition. To kill such a large number is also opposed to the Islamic sense of justice Al Quran states: No soul shall bear another’s burden [35:18]. It is also against the Quranic injunction regarding the prisoner of war. Verse 47:4 states that when the enemy is brought under control, the prisoners are to be treated with generosity (i.e. release the prisoner to freedom without ransom) or ransom is recommended.
Moreover it is unlikely that Banu Qurayza should be slaughtered when other Jewish groups who surrendered before Banu Qurayza and after them were treated leniently and allowed them to go. Indeed Abu Ubayd b.Sallam relates in his Kitab al-Amwal that when Khaybar fall to the Muslims there were among the residents a particular family or clan who had distinguished themselves by excessive rude abuse of the Prophet. Yet the Prophet addressed them in words which are no more than a rebuke [ed. Khalil Muhammad Harras, Cairo, 1388/1968, 241]. This happened after the surrender of Banu Qurayza. If so many hundreds of people had actually been put to death in the market-place of Medina and trenches were dug for the burial, it is strange that there is no trace whatsoever of all that – no sign, no visible mark to point to the place of massacre or burial trenches.
Had this slaughter actually happened jurists would have adopted it as a precedent? In fact exactly the opposite has been the case. The attitude of jurists and their rulings have been more according to the precepts of Islam. Al Quran states: No soul shall bear another’s burden [35:18].
Indeed Abu Ubayd b. Sallam relates a very significant incident in his
book Kitab al-Amwal which is a book of jurisprudence, not of Sira (biography).
He narrated an event of trouble among a group of the People of the Book
(Ahal al Kitab) in Lebanon when Abdullah b. Ali was the regional governor.
The governor put down the sedition and ordered the community in question
to be moved to elsewhere. Imam al-Awzai, contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, in
has capacity as the leading jurist of the time immediately objected to
this decision of the governor. His argument was that the episode was not
the result of the community’s unanimous agreement. He argued that
under Islamic Shariah many people cannot be punished for the fault of
the few. Islamic Shariah on the contrary stipulates the punishment of
the few for the fault of the many. If Imam al-Awzai had accepted the story
of slaughter of Banu Qurayza as related by Ibn Ishaq as true he would
have treated it as a precedent and would not have come out with an argument
against authority represented by governor Abdullah b. Ali and would have
advised the governor to act according to precedent of Banu Qurayza.
The sources of the story of the killing of Banu Qurayza as related by Ibn Ishaq are extremely doubtful and the details are utterly opposed to the spirit of Islam and the rules of the Quran. Credible authority is lacking and circumstantial evidence does not corroborate and support it. This means that the story is doubtful. In fact Ibn Ishaq quoted as source such persons who were already dead at the time of occurrence of the incident.
The story of killing of Jews in Medina according to some other scholars and historians however has origin in earlier events. Prof. Guillaume is of the opinion that Jews arrived in Medina after Jewish Wars [A. Guillaume, Islam (Harmondsworth, 1956), 10-11]. According to Flavius Josephus, himself a Jew, Alexander, who ruled in Jerusalem before Herod the Great, hung upon crosses 800 Jewish captives and slaughtered their wives and children before their eyes [De bello Judaico, 1, 4, 6]. At Masada the number of those who died at the end was 960 [ibd, VII, 9, 1].
Clearly the similarity of the numbers killed is most striking. This is indeed more than a mere resemblance. The origin of the story of Banu Qurayza, preserved by descendants of Jews who fled south of Arabia after the Jewish Wars, just as Flavius Josephus recorded the same story for the Classical world. A later generation of their descendants superimposed details of the siege of Masada on the story of the siege of Banu Qurayza, perhaps by confusing a tradition of their distant past with one from their less remote history. The mixture provide Ibn Ishaq’s story.
Thus Muslims and non-Muslims alike must make sincere efforts to be acquainted with the true teachings of Islam and authentic history of Muslim culture and civilization for that can ensure peace and tranquility in this conflict ridden world. This is also important as that can alone change the western mindset which is vital to bring an end of hegemony and unilateralism. Allahu Alam. Allah knows best. #
The author is greatly indebted to W. N. Arafat for
using her scholarly research work New Light on the Story of Banu Qurayza
and the Jews of Medina, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great
Britain and Ireland, 1976, pp 100-107.
16th December 2006HOME