What the world needs today perhaps more than anything else is an acceptable formula for the attainment of religious tolerance and harmony. This is one of the greatest challenges of our time. A great portion of the world is suffering from the illness of religious hatred and sectarian violence. The following verse of the Qur’an best serves as the explanation of our affairs today; “Indeed the faithful, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans – those of them who have faith in Allah and the Last Day and act righteously – they shall have their reward near their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve.” (2: 62) This verse of the Qur’an rules out the concept of community superiority for any given group. The content of this verse makes it very clear that salvation by Islamic standards depends upon the individual’s actions and sincerity and that it is not the prerogative of any group. No man or woman can earn his or her salvation by the mere fact of associating with a particular group or community. Salvation will be achievable only by a person who truly believes in Almighty God and the Life Hereafter and who has given genuine proof in his life having lived a life of righteous deeds. Another important aspect of the faith of Islam is that it explains the concept of Monotheism (Al-Tawhid) quite in explicit terms without leaving even the slightest room for ambiguity and confusion. Let us deal with the fact that in practice different kinds of religious groups do exist. Given the various kinds of differences, let us consider how best to bring about harmony between them. Islam’s approach to the entire problem is much more realistic in that it accepts ideological differences. Having accepted these differences, it then advocates the policy of tolerance and respect for one another in everyday dealings. This is on a parallel with the principle expressed in the English saying, “Let us agree to disagree.” In this connection, one of the commands of the Qur’an is that in principle “There is no compulsion in religion”…(2: 256)
“…wherever religious harmony has existed, it has been on unity despite retaining mutual differences, rather than on unity eliminating all differences which is not possible in this world.
At another place it declares that “You have your religion and I have mine.” (109: 6) It was as a result of this commandment that when the Prophet of Islam migrated to Madina, he issued a declaration reaffirming his acceptance of the religion of Muslims for the Muslims and the religion of Jews for the Jews. In order to perpetuate the atmosphere of mutual harmony, the Qur’an commands the Muslims, in their dealings with unbelievers, not to revile (the idols) which they invoke besides God, lest in their ignorance they should spitefully revile God Almighty. (6: 109) This principle, formulated by Islam, is best described not as religious harmony, but as harmony among religious people. This is a principle whose utility is a matter of historical record. It is evident that in the past as well as in the present, wherever religious harmony has existed, it has been on unity despite retaining mutual differences, rather than on unity eliminating all differences which is not possible in this world. It is not based on agreeing to agree, but on agreeing to disagree. Many people hold that the removal of all differences is the sin qua non for bringing about unity. But this view is untenable as it is not practicable. In this world, unity is achievable only by learning to unite in spite of differences, rather than insisting on unity without differences, for their total eradication is entirely impossible. The secret of attaining peace in life is tolerance. There is nothing wrong in the diversity of opinions if they are expressed in a good and acceptable manner and also tolerated. The beauty of the garden of life is enhanced if the flower of unity is accompanied by the thorn of diversity. The adoption of the policy of tolerance in the face of controversy is not a negative step, rather it is a positive course of action. Divergence of views plays an important role in the development of the human psyche. A society whose members hold identical views and never have any dialogues or critical discussions will soon find itself in the doldrums. The intellectual development of the members of this society will be frozen because personal evolution takes place only where there is interaction of divergent thinking. But this process needs proper healthy dialogue between the followers of different religions and also the adherents of the one and same religion. For this process is based on sincere discussion with a view to understanding each other’s views in their genuine context for the sake of unity and harmony. The notion of debates must be avoided as this has caused mutual hatred, misconceptions and serious divisions. As we know, often the prime objective in the whole process of debating is that of proving the superiority of the own religion or ideology at the cost of demonising the opposing ones.
Dr Mohammad Khalid is a Research scholar and lecturer at Birmingham University. He is also Head of Education in Jami Masjid Sparkbrook Islamic Centre Birmingham