Anthropology of Islam: Pluralism in Islam
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
The idea of pluralism in Islam centers on three main issues: syncretism in religious practice, the intrinsic ability of Islam to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies. It also seems that marginalized Muslim groups in the so-called Islamic societies or nations are so marginalized and relegated to the periphery by the perceived “orthodox establishment” to maintain a sort of political stability. As long as the government and the ‘ulama(religious scholars) who support them don’t interfere too much with the religious affairs of these peripheral cultural groups their governance is tolerated or approved or regarded indifferently. There is no incentive to rebellion. And the Muslim governments are content to concentrate on administrative tasks as long as those on the periphery at least make an outward show of maintaining orthodox practices(orthopraxy). Yet and still there have been numerous instances of abusive governmental regimes and authoritarianism.
Socially, the idea of a pluralistic, inclusive Islam as found in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, or East Africa is a contentious issue. Syncretistic practices are usually roundly condemned by what I call the “orthodox establishment”. In nations that are secular, as in the majority of the Muslim world, this orthodox establishment consists of the ‘ulama. Usually in these governments, which are usual very repressive, totalitarian, or seen as proxies for Western governments, religion only becomes a concern when individuals, groups or movements threaten the governments political power. Egypt is a perfect example of this type. In theocratic or monarchial forms of government, the ‘ulama are either co-opted or allied with the State to form this “orthodox establishment”. Iran and Saudi Arabia represent this type.
Syncretism in religious practice refers to the inclusion of elements into the religion of Islam that are either borrowed from or influenced by non-Muslim society. It also includes situations where Islam is overlain pre-existing cultures. Usually this is referred to by the orthodox establishment as bid’ah, innovation in religious practice and kufr, deviation in correct religious belief,. These societies have existed among the Muslims since the time of the final Messenger of Islam, Muhammad(saws). Some of these practices include saint worship, certain faith healing practices, sorcery and witchcraft, astrology, and spirit possession. It can also include celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and birthdays. Curiously, Female Genital Mutilation(FGM), honor killing, even stoning to death as a punishment for adultery and death penalty for apostasy also qualify as syncretistic practices or bid’ah, yet the critics of Islam and many traditional Muslims and Muslim extremists regard these practices as Islamic.
Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with. This maybe why one speaks of a Euro-Islam, a Western Islam, or an American Islam. Many scholars have suggested that there are many types of Islam, religious expressions that are unique because of the way the existing sociocultural milieu shapes Islamic experience. However, I have posited elsewhere that there can only be one Islam, especially when we understand the difference between content and container, essence and form. There is an interdependent reaction between Islam and pre-existing cultures. Both act on an affect each other, creating unique., local Islamic experience. Both those who believe that there are multiple versions of Islam and those that claim there is only one authentic Islam have difficulty reconciling their ideas with the Islamic concept that all Prophets of Islam, from Adam to Nuh to Ibrahim to Musa to Isa,(as) to Muhammad(saws) were Muslims.
How does one believe that all prophets were Muslim if the form that Islam took as a result of the Revelations each Prophet received and the teachings they expounded took different forms? And how does one reconcile the idea of multiple Islams with the other Islamic concept that Islam was in fact the religion that all Prophets taught? In an intellectual climate that accepts multiple interpretations of Islam it is possible to validate the extremist interpretation of Islam as legitimately Islamic, it seems. Often we hear pundits talk about the need to “reform” Islam by expunging extremist interpretations of it. Yet, in the mainstream mind, these are not legitimate Islamic interpretations at all. One possible answer is that Islam is inherently pluralistic, even as certain “interpretations” fall outside the possible range of legitimate Islamic expression. Inclusive and pluralistic does not mean that all expressions and interpretations are Islamic.
The issue of religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies is the most contentious and possibly most important of the issues related to pluralism in Islam. Theologically Islam is in fact exclusivistic. This cannot be denied. However the real question of concern is the idea of religious freedom for non-Muslims in an Islamic state. When looking at the state of Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority nations it is evident that they are treated poorly, regarded a second-class citizens, discriminated against, even persecuted in some cases. We see this happening to Christians and Jews in Iraq and Egypt and other countries of the Muslim world. It happens to Buddhists in Afghanistan, Parsis(Zoroastrians) and Baha’is in Iran, and Ahmadiyya and Hindus in Pakistan and Kashmir. Many critics of Islam look at these realities on the ground and studies of history and conclude that Islam is inherently and uniquely intolerant of religious minorities. Opinions among Mainstream Muslims range from denunciation of this behavior as unIslamic to outright denial of these realities. What does the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book say?
The oft repeated Quranic verse describing religious tolerance that is rejected by Islamophobes by utilizing the idea of an-nasik wa’l mansukh isonly the beginning:
There is no compulsion in Religion…[Qur’an 2:256]
Critics of Islam contend that all of the so-called” peace verses” found in the Qur’an are cancelled out, effectively abrogated by its “sword verses” or “war verses”. We will analyze the legitimacy of the Law of Abrogation in Islam in full detail in another article. But it will be briefly stated that the criticism amounts to a belief that certain verses in the Qur’an are no longer applicable, that Allah has replaced them. All of this flies in the face of actual Muslim belief, even among extremists. Muslims do not believe that the peace verses are no longer the word of Allah or do not belong in the Qur’an any longer. To get a clearer picture of the Quranic vision of religious tolerance and liberty I can list numerous verses and their tafsir.
We have shown him the way, he may be thankful or unthankful [Qur’an 76:3]
The Truth is from your Lord, so let him who wishes believe and let him who wishes disbelieve[Qur’an 18:29]
Indeed there have come to you clear proofs from your Lord; whoever will therefore see, it is for the good of his own soul, and whoever will disbelieve, it shall be against himself[Qur’an 6:105]
Bu the actual verse that lays down the broad principles of religious freedom is:
And fight them until there is no more persecution and religion is only for Allah. But if they desist, then there should be no more hostility except against the oppressors[Qur’an 2:193]
Critics of Islam and extremists hone in on the phrase “and religion is only for Allah” and conclude that fighting must continue until Islam is dominant. Yet in light of the most primary method of Quranic interpretation(ta’wil), Qur’an explains Qur’an, we will see that not only does this verse completely defeat the idea of perpetual warfare in Islam, it defeats the idea that religious war in Islam is for the purpose of spreading Islam. In fact it shows that any religious war in Islam is only to prevent or fight religious persecution. Jihad is not “holy war”, as the Islamophobes contend. It also clearly shows, when coupled with verses 39- 40 of Surah 22, Islam allows religious liberty and does not countenance religious compulsion.
Permission to fight is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed. And surely Allah is able to assist them-
Those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is all. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down. And surely Allah will help him who helps Him. Surely Allah is Strong, Mighty [Qur’an 22:39-40]
As we can see Muslims are supposed to not only protect themselves from religious persecution but also protect other religious communities from harm from those who would persecute them on account of religion. The phrase “and religion is only for Allah” means that no one is to be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs and everyone is at liberty to hold whatever belief they wish. We can now conclude three things in light of this information: syncretism in religious practice is condemned as bid’ah in Islam, Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies, though not realized in most Muslim-Majority countries, is guaranteed by Allah through the Qur’an. Each of these ideas will be explored further in future articles.