Legacy of tolerance

10 Oct 2014


The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

UNCONTROLLED violence manifests itself at different points and in vastly different ways. Violence today suggests that tolerance is at a breaking point. Scratch the apparently God-fearing, ritualised and placid life of the 180 million or so people of this Muslim country and you will find a tangle of envy, suspicion, hatred and many insatiable animosities.

All over the world there are manifestations of intolerance, xenophobia and religious and political extremism with deadly consequences for the lives and properties of people. What is even more deplorable is the incitement to religious and sectarian hatred when members of one religion or sect refuse to tolerate the beliefs and religious practices of others.

Is this consistent with the spirit of Islamic teachings and culture? Let us find out from history.

The Prophet (PBUH) completed the work done by earlier messengers.

In an age dominated by narrow concepts of race and sect and class, the outstanding characteristic of early Islamic culture was its fine spirit of tolerance. This is true in spite of the centuries-old propaganda spread by ignorant and malicious quarters that Islam has a narrow and dogmatic ideology and that it was imposed on the world ‘through the sword’. This is perhaps the unhappy legacy of the Crusades when the two most important proselytising religions of the world, Islam and Christianity, confronted one another; propaganda was even then one of the great weapons of war.

Even in the 20th century a scholar like David Margoliouth, who wrote extensively on Islam, and a standard work like the Encyclopaedia Britannica have made statements about Islam and its Prophet (PBUH) which would be ludicrous if they were not tragic. Such statements deepen the misunderstandings and prejudices that make international concord difficult.

Those who wish to make a fair appraisal of the teachings of Islam are well advised to read Allama Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Maulana Azad’s introduction of Tarjumanal Quran or Syed Ameer Ali’s The Spirit of Islam. Here is a paragraph from The Spirit of Islam characterising the supreme tolerance and justice of Islam:

“To the Christians of Nazareth and the surrounding territories the security of Allah and the pledge of His Prophet (PBUH) are extended for their lives, their religions, and their property — the present as well as the absent, and other besides; there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith or their observations; nor any change in their rights or privileges; no bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, nor any monk from his monastery, nor any priest from his priesthood, and they shall continue to enjoy everything, great and small, as heretofore; no image or cross shall be destroyed; they shall not oppress nor be oppressed; they shall not practise the rights of blood vengeance as in the Days of Ignorance; no tithes shall be levied from them, nor shall they be required to furnish provisions for the troops.”

Islamic culture derives its spirit of tolerance from the basic teachings of the faith. Islam does not teach or maintain that it is the only true religion, while all other religions are mere heresies. It is a part of a Muslim’s faith that every people and every age has had its prophets who showed the right path according to the needs of the times. The Prophet of Islam crystallised and completed the great work done by the earlier prophets and taught his followers to hold them in high esteem.

In the words of the Quran, every nation has been sent prophets. How refreshingly different is this view from one which consigns the followers of all other religions (and viewpoints) to the torment of hell. It ensures the fullest freedom of belief and worship to persons of all faiths.

By and large Muslims present a gratifying record of both practical and intellectual tolerance of other faiths, peoples and cultures. The intense religious fanaticism that characterised the Spanish Inquisition was conspicuously absent in Muslim countries where Jews carried out their religious pursuits unhindered. Intellectually Islamic culture borrowed large-heartedly from Greek culture. Indeed, the Hellenistic tradition, on which Western culture is based, did not come directly from the Greeks but through the Muslims who preserved it, added to it and passed it on to Europe when it emerged from the ‘dark ages.’

Those Muslims of Pakistan who wield the sword and the dagger, the bullet and the bomb would do well to recall Iqbal’s definition of a momin:

“He is sword against unrighteousness and a shield for truth…. Great is his forgiveness, his sense of justice, his generosity, his kindness. … Even in a fit of wrath, his temper retains its balance.”

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2014