Religion is commonly seen by believers as divine inspiration for the guidance of mankind. The heavenly inspiration, mostly recorded in sacred books, reveals itself in figurative and allegoric language. When mankind endeavours — with human capacity — to make meaning of the divine message, the result is diverse expressions. Therefore, multiplicity of understanding and interpretation exists in most world faiths.
During its journey, Islam shaped different cultures and reciprocally, some Islamic concepts and practices got coloured by local cultures as well. It is evident that Muslims of different cultures and geographies tried to make meaning of Islamic teachings within their context and culture.
Historically, whenever Muslims faced new situations and challenges they had to look at their faith with different perspectives to seek fresh insight. It was because of this attitude that Muslims in the early period of Islam contributed diversely to the treasures of human knowledge such as theology, philosophy, art, architecture and literature.
Diversity is a historical reality and cannot be eliminated
Islam as a faith appealed to different faculties of humankind such as the intellectual and the spiritual. Therefore, people with different interests focused on different aspects of Islamic teachings.
For example, people with intellectual drive got inspired by the intellectual dimension of Islamic teachings. During their interaction with different cultures, Muslims encountered various theological and philosophical discourses. Many Muslim theologians and philosophers became engaged intellectually with theological and philosophical concepts. They endeavoured to explore the then existing discourses and tried to harmonise them with Islamic teachings. As a result, diverse theological and philosophical traditions are found in Muslim history.
Similarly, many Muslims were deeply inspired by the spiritual dimension of Islam. The Sufis and some other groups focused on the spiritual facet in order to seek guidance and salvation. This is the reason that a huge amount of inspirational literature is found in Muslim societies.
Furthermore, people with interest in jurisprudence showed overwhelming engagement with the legal dimension of Islam. Such engagement contributed to developing rich jurisprudential traditions in Muslim societies. At times, due to political reasons, the jurisprudential aspect remained more influential than the other dimensions of Islamic teachings.
The above examples reveal that trends within Islamic history have not been monolithic, but more a mosaic of understanding. This mosaic, with its plurality of understanding and interpretations, is an integral part of Muslim history.
Today, many Muslim societies, like Pakistan, reflect the diversity of Muslim history. However, sometimes this reality is ignored, intentionally or unintentionally, by some groups and a particular understanding of Islam is considered as ‘the understanding’, and efforts are then made to impose it by force. As a result, societies face violence and polarisation.
It is observed that most history books available for ordinary people and the material taught in educational institutions in Pakistan have been written in the orthodox and heterodox paradigm. It means such material indicates that there is only one orthodox or ‘right’ understanding of Islam and others are heterodox or ‘deviating’. This kind of learning is not able to provide an opportunity to the learner to understand the rich diversity of Muslim history and societies. Such a frame of reference promotes hatred and rejection of different views.
There is a need to understand that diversity is a historical reality and cannot be eliminated. There is a need to understand this reality in order to create a peaceful society.
The state needs to develop an inclusive policy that ensures equality and discourages discrimination on the bases of faith, ethnicity etc. It should promote research-based and balanced history books for ordinary readers and students while polemical literature should be discouraged.
The education system needs to review its policies, curriculum and the teaching-learning process in order to develop a balanced and tolerant citizenry.
The media plays a significant role in shaping or reshaping the culture of society. Hence, it needs to introduce programmes that promote diverse views in society.
In sum, Islam as a faith and civilisation has a dynamic and rich history. Historically, Islam has been understood and expressed through different ways. The diverse expressions are like a mosaic with different colours and shapes.
Today, Muslim societies reflect the same plurality of understanding of Islam. Hence, in order to create harmony in Muslim societies, there is a need to accept and appreciate every piece of the mosaic of Muslim history.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in Muslim history and culture.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2014