I am a citizen of the USA, which from its foundation as a nation has been steeped in the notion of multiculturalism and religious pluralism. “All men are created equal” and “freedom of religion” are built into our foundational documents. It’s very true that we have had our difficulties (to put it mildly) in actually practicing those principles – our treatment of dark skinned people (Negroes/Blacks/African Americans – whatever term is “politically correct” at any given time) and the “American Indian” for example, and the bigotry against Roman Catholics and Jews for another – but the principles are clearly present, and there have always been those who pushed hard to overcome the inconsistencies. Although there are still Christian fundamentalists who believe that our government was founded on the Bible and Christianity, they are thankfully in the minority; most citizens of the USA, it seems to me, clearly see through the fallacy of that notion (despite the fact that the “religious right” are very outspoken).
Personally, I have come to delight in the diversity present in my country. I love to see the different skin pigmentations and facial features; and it’s delightful to see on occasion various styles of clothing representing different cultural and religious backgrounds. While I can’t help the fact that I’m ¾ “WASP” (I’m “white anglo-saxon”, but no longer Protestant – and I’ve never been Catholic), I like to say that religiously I’m Christian-Jewish-Buddhist-Hindu-Muslim and any other religion that’s either monotheistic or monistic. (Hinduism in its pure form is monistic, not polytheistic; and the Buddhism of Gautama Buddha was very definitely not polytheistic, no matter how much “Buddhism” has been corrupted by some. Some have even called it atheistic or agnostic; but I don’t find that to be true.)
In light of my stated eclecticism in religious thinking, some might be surprised at the way my blog posts in the past year and a half have shown a decided tendency toward Islam. Isn’t that the most hateful and intolerant of religions? That seems to be something that, as Sheila Musaji of The American Muslim likes to say, “everybody knows” but is nevertheless not true. (For instance, about half way through this article.) Islam is very pluralistic – both culturally and religiously.
Let’s consider Islam’s teaching concerning nations and cultures. We know that Islam, in what I call its “Muhammadan version” (meaning the “version” given by God to Muhammad [peace be to him] in the Qur’an), originated in Saudi Arabia. Does that mean that Islam is an “Arabian religion”, which desires to “Arabianize” the world? Certainly not! Here’s what that revelation to and through Muhammad has to say on the subject:
O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware (Qur’an 49:13, Muhammad Asad’s English rendering).
First of all, all of humanity originated with God; so we all have one common “Parent”. Second, we all come from human parents (male and female). This may either mean that we all come from a single original couple (Adam and Eve), or that we all share in common the fact that we each originated from the sexual union of human parents. Third, the purpose God had in mind in making mankind into various nations and tribes, instead of being all alike, is (surprisingly?) that you might come to know one another. God obviously delights in variety in the midst of unity, and “He” wants us to appreciate this variety, not despise each other because of it (imagining that “our” nation or tribe is superior, for some reason or another, to others). In addition, appreciating the variety should also lead to appreciating the unity of humanity; but it means we have to concentrate more, and focus more, in order to perceive that unity. In fact, it’s the very necessity of having to look for the unity that enhances our appreciation of it in the midst of the obvious variety.
But perhaps the most important part of this verse is this: Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. What is it that gives one person “superiority” over another in the sight of God? Is it our nationality, culture, skin coloration, language, etc.? Not at all! It is our awareness of God (variously rendered as the most righteous of you – Yusuf Ali; the best in conduct – Pickthal; or the one among you most careful (of his duty) – Shakir). It doesn’t matter what one’s nationality, language, or skin coloration is; what gives one status before the One is our consciousness of God and the righteousness that flows from it.
So the Qur’an claims that God is the source of the variety of nations, and the purpose is not “division” but harmony. It’s like the Creator has composed a musical masterpiece, whose beauty actually depends on the the blending together of all the various parts. And that’s what multiculturalism is all about.
Consider also this verse (30:22, Muhammad Asad): And among his wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colours: for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of [innate] knowledge! Instead of seeking to establish hard and fast boundaries based on language and color, we should marvel at this variety and learn lessons from it. We can’t do that if we seek to keep ourselves separate from one another.
I have never traveled to a Muslim country; but in my reading I have come across quite a few testimonies to the openness and hospitality to strangers and visitors of Muslim people. Some have been so impressed that it made them start looking into the religion of Islam, and they wound up “converting” (or “reverting” as some Muslims like to say). Muhammad Asad, the ‘translator’ of the English edition of the Qur’an to which I refer a lot, was a Jew from Austria (named Leopold Weiss) who traveled in a number of Muslim countries and later converted to Islam. One of the many things that impressed him was this hospitality, and the ability of Islam to exist in all kinds of cultures.
The well known leader in the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm X, was a “black man” who embraced the teachings of “The Nation of Islam” while he was in prison. At that time at least The Nation of Islam was a “black supremacist” organization, and this appealed to Malcolm X originally. (I believe “The Nation” has perhaps evolved beyond this “black supremacy” notion by now). However, Malcolm went on “Hajj” (“Pilgrimage”) to Mecca, where he came face-to-face with genuine Islam as taught in the Qur’an. He was overwhelmed by the way people of all nations, languages, and colors could commingle and associate in friendship, ‘brotherhood’, and equality with each other, in a common devotion to The One, the Creator and Sustainer of the worlds. When he returned to the USA, he was no longer a “black supremacist”. (He had left The Nation of Islam, for other reasons, shortly before going on the Hajj).
That is what Islam teaches, and what a true understanding of that teaching leads to, with regard to the question of “multiculturalism”. But what about religious pluralism? Isn’t it true that “Muhammadan” Islam teaches that it is the only true religion – the only one approved by God – in the world, and cannot coexist peaceably with other religions? Again, that’s one of those things that it seems “everybody knows” but is nevertheless not true.
Well, doesn’t Surah 3:85 in the Qur’an specifically say: And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers (Shakir version)? Yes, it does; but that just illustrates the problem with ‘transliterating’ terms rather than actually ‘translating’ them. A term is directly transferred from one language to another (in this case, Arabic to English) without defining the term; then someone imposes a very limited definition on the term, and all of a sudden it sounds very intolerant and bigoted. When the verse quoted above is read as Mr. Shakir rendered it, to our English ears it sounds like it’s saying that the religion ‘originating’ with Muhammad is the only religion accepted by God.
However, this verse takes on a very different meaning when the term “Islam” is actually translated or defined. Consider Yusuf Ali’s rendering: If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good). Pickthal and Muhammad Asad simply translate the term “Islam” without actually using the term itself. Pickthal: And whoso seeketh as religion other than the Surrender (to Allah) it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the Hereafter; and Asad: For, if one goes in search of a religion other than self-surrender unto God, it will never be accepted from him, and in the life to come he shall be among the lost. It is “surrender to God” which is the only religion God accepts, not a specific religion named “Islam”.
Now “surrender to God” did not originate with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be with him), but with “the first man, Adam”. All Prophets and servants of God since Adam have been “Muslims” (“those who are surrendered to God”) according to the teaching of the Qur’an. This includes those Prophets listed in the Bible, but is not limited to them. This is made clear in the verse immediately preceding the one just quoted: Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed by their Sustainer unto Moses and Jesus and all the [other] prophets: we make no distinction between any of them. And unto Him do we surrender ourselves” (3:84, Muhammad Asad).
There were many Prophets of God besides those listed in the Qur’an (40:78): And, indeed, [O Muhammad,] We sent forth apostles before thy time, some of them We have mentioned to thee, and some of them We have not mentioned to thee… And those Prophets belonged to all nations, not just the Jews and Arabs (16:36): And indeed, within every community have We raised up an apostle [entrusted with this message]: “Worship God, and shun the powers of evil”…
There are many Muslims who have no difficulty in including Krishna and Buddha among those Prophets of God – although they will recognize that many ‘followers’ of later generations have deviated to a considerable extent from the “original teachings”.
The teaching of the Qur’an is that all of those Prophets and their followers were “Muslims”, despite the fact that they lived long before Muhammad and the revelation given to him. For instance, Abraham and Ishmael – and their faithful descendants – are called Muslims (“those who have submitted themselves to God”) in 2:127 and 128 (Yusuf Ali): And remember Abraham and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing. Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in Mercy); for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. And the disciples of Jesus are called Muslims in a couple of places. 3:52 – When Jesus found unbelief on their part He said: “Who will be my helpers to (the work of) Allah [God]?” Said the disciples: “We are Allah’s [God’s] helpers: We believe in Allah, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims. 5:111 – “And behold! I inspired the disciples to have faith in Me and Mine Messenger: they said, ‘We have faith, and do thou bear witness that we bow to Allah [God] as Muslims'”.
So people of all “religious affiliations” who genuinely are devoted to God and live the righteous life which flows from that devotion are accepted by God (5:69 Muhammad Asad): for, verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.
The attitude which the Qur’an promotes toward those who follow other Prophets than Muhammad is: since it is God Himself who has given each nation and religious tradition its own set of laws and rituals to follow, don’t be drawn into arguments with them. Just invite them to your Creator and Sustainer, and leave it up to God to justly judge between the various groups.
[22:67] UNTO every community have We appointed [different] ways of worship, which they ought to observe. Hence, [O believer,] do not let those [who follow ways other than thine] draw thee into disputes on this score, but summon [them all] unto thy Sustainer: for, behold, thou art indeed on the right way. [22:68] And if they [try to] argue with thee, say [only]: “God knows best what you are doing.” [22:69] [For, indeed,] God will judge between you [all] on Resurrection Day with regard to all on which you were wont to differ.
Speaking of the interrelationship between Judaism, Christianity, and the message given to Muhammad, the second half of 5:48 says this: Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.
Those who follow the way of life given to Muhammad should seek for harmony, not division and strife (3:64): Say: “O followers of earlier revelation! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God.” And if they turn away, then say: “Bear witness that it is we who have surrendered ourselves unto Him.” That is what is meant by the statement in 22:67 that the followers of the “Muhammadan” revelation should not argue with others, but summon [them all] unto thy Sustainer.
Are there “Muslims” who don’t practice these Qur’anic teachings, but rather are divisive and bigoted? Unfortunately there are. But, again unfortunately, this is the case with (seemingly, at least) all religions and philosophies. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, citizens of the USA have not been entirely consistent (to put it mildly) in following the principles expounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There are plenty of Christians who don’t exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ; plenty of Jews whose lives aren’t entirely consistent with the Torah; and plenty of Buddhists who have strayed quite a distance from the teachings of Gautama Buddha. We should be careful not to confound the inconsistent practices of the ‘followers’ of a religion with the actual teachings of the religion. Before using the examples of the ‘followers’ to condemn the religion, seek to first be sure you really understand the teachings of the religion.
So the “Muhammadan” version of Islam is very multicultural and religiously pluralistic, and I find it very consistent with my ‘eclecticism’ in religion. I’m not going to argue whether it’s more so than other religions, though; it’s enough that it’s at least equally pluralistic. 🙂