Pluralism in Islam — Between Scripture and Praxis

Aug 02

A version of this article first appeared in the July/August issue of Islamic Horizons.

lovethyneighborEgyptian writer Mona Eltahawy in a New York Times article recounted her 2005 encounter with Mohammed Akef, the then spiritual leader of Muslim Brotherhood. When she suggested to Akef that the verses in the Quran regarding women’s dress have several interpretations, Akef replied, “…There are no different interpretations. There is just one interpretation.” A 2012 Pew survey indicated that nearly 6 out of 10 Muslims believe that, “there is only one true way to interpret the teachings,” of Islam, ranging from a high of 78 percent in Egypt to a low of 34 percent in Morocco. Do such attitudes reflect the core values of the Quran and the historical diversity among Muslims?

The 2012 Pew survey (“The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity”), which was conducted in 39 countries covering nearly 67 percent of the world’s Muslim population, showed strong consensus among Muslims regarding devotional practices.

Nearly 9 out of 10 fast during Ramadan, 7 in 10 give zakat (charity), and 6 in 10 pray five times each day. Almost 100 percent declare their faith in God and believe that Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is God’s Prophet and Messenger. Nearly 9 in 10 believe in heaven/hell, fate (qadr) and angels; 8 in 10 believe the Quran to be the word of God. However, beyond such basic agreements, there is divergence in thought and actions, particularly as it relates to the religious pluralism.

Attitude of Muslims towards intra-faith pluralism is varied and often elusive.

Nearly 1 in 5 Muslims, do not consider Sufis to be Muslims, with a high mark of 44 percent in Egypt. Such opinions overlook the role played by Sufi orders in the spread of Islam. Equally concerning, nearly 1 in 4 Muslims do not consider Shias as Muslims. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, tops the charts with 52 percent. However, in three countries where Shias constitute the majority of the population (Azerbaijan, Iraq and Lebanon), on average less than 6 percent of the respondents disregard Shias as Muslims.

The picture for inter-faith pluralism is also gloomy. A 2006 Pew report (“The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other”) showed Muslims viewed Westerners as selfish, arrogant and violent, while Westerners viewed Muslims as fanatical, violent and arrogant. Examining the fallout from the publication of cartoons about Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, the report noted,

“By wide margins, Westerners who had heard of the controversy believe that Muslim intolerance is principally to blame for the controversy, while Muslims, by even more lopsided majorities, see Western disrespect for the Islamic religion as the root of the problem. The clashing points of view are seen clearly in Nigeria, where 81% of Muslims blame the controversy on Western disrespect and 63% of Christians say Muslim intolerance is to blame.”

Not taking the time to understand each other creates the environment for toxic flashpoints.


Theological doctrines on salvation is an important issue in all religions. How such doctrines are put into practice may dictate attitudes towards interfaith relations. A2013 Pew survey titled, “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” show that

on average (median) only 18 percent of Muslims believe that people of other faiths may inherit heaven. In Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Malaysia 9 in 10 Muslims believe that “Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven.” However, in Bosnia, Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Chad, and Mozambique, nearly 4 out of 10 Muslims responded that, “many religions can lead to eternal life in heaven.” Among American Muslims (“U.S. Muslims – Views on Religion and Society in a Global Context”), 56 percent believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.

On arguably one of the most important questions that consume people of all faiths there is impressive diversity of opinions. However, the parochial views in major Muslim-majority countries ought to elicit concerns.

Although hardline conservatives often deny the salvific value of other faiths, Muslim scholars Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim noted that while heaven is eternal, hell is not. Al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi inferred that the mercy of God cannot be held in such low estimation as to conceive that salvation is only attainable by Muslims. Mohammed Hassan Khalil, in his University of Michigan doctoral dissertation, “Muslim Scholarly Discussions on Salvation and the Fate of ‘Others’,” concludes that given the wide variety of opinions about the salvific fate of people of other faiths, Muslims should avoid one-dimensional answers to questions regarding salvation. Verses such as, “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community,…(5:48)” and “Each community has its own direction to which it turns… (2:148),” suggests that pluralism is an integral part of Quranic values. Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of Islamic Studies at George Mason University, in his book the “ The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism,” cites chapter 2 verse 213 to argue about the pluralistic vision of Islam, “Mankind was a single community, then God sent prophets to bring good news and warning, and with them He sent the Scripture with the Truth, to judge between people in their disagreements.”

In addition, Kurdish theologian Said Nursi (1877-1960) and author of the Quranic commentary “Risale-i-Nur,” asserts that if followers of other faiths perform a genuine worship of God, then “the manifestations of the unseen and the epiphanies of the sprit, revelation and inspiration,” are not exclusive to Islam and can be found in other divinely guided faith traditions. Contemporary Turkish scholar, Fethullah Gulen stressed in a Fountain magazine article titled, “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue,” that Muslims cannot remain prisoners of their history and act out of “political partisanship” while cloaking it in the “garb” of Islam. He noted that Islam made history’s greatest ecumenical call by stating in the Quran, “Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all…(3:64).” In his view, this verse provides a big tent under which, “followers of revealed religions could end their separation.”


Merely accepting diversity is not enough, asserts Harvard Pluralism Project’s Diana Eck. In a multi-cultural, multi-religious world, it is necessary to “celebrate diversity,” which requires knowledge of the “other.” This does not imply relativism, often associated with watering down of one’s beliefs. Eck notes, “Pluralism is the process of creating a society through critical and self-critical encounter with one another, acknowledging, rather than hiding, our deepest differences” and a commitment to nurture constructive dialogues. Practicing pluralism holds out hope for a deeper human shared dignity.

For many Muslims, religious pluralism evokes deep-seated fears about Western-inspired secular relativism, given the absence of exact Quranic or Hadith terms about pluralism. In his 2009 paper, “Diversity and Pluralism, A Quranic Perspective” (Islam and Civilizational Renewal, Vol. 1 No. 1, p. 29), Mohammed Hasan Kamali, former professor of law at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, advocates using al-ta῾ad-dudiyyah as the Arabic cognate for pluralism. Labeling every heterodox practice as “un-Islamic” erodes the fabric of the ummah and is the genesis of the takfiri attitude (calling Muslims as kafir or infidel), most violently manifested in terrorist groups. Decrying that Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the West, and yet succumbing to easy stereotyping of people of other faiths, leaves Muslims vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. The Quran condemns such attitudes, “Do you order righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the Scripture? Then will you not reason? (2:44)”


The Quran states La ikraha fi-din, (There is no compulsion in religion…(2:256), where the use of “la” to start the verse indicates that the negation is inclusive of the past, present and future. This is akin to the use of La-ilaha (there is no god), in the Shahada (Declaration of Faith), which ends with the emphatic il-lal-lah (but God). Following la is the word ikraha, often translated as compulsion. The triliteral root for the word ikraha is kaf ra ha, the same root that produces the verb kariha, meaning dislike or hate. The word makruh, which not only literally means dislike, but is also used as a legal standard to denote actions that are displeasing to God, also comes from the same root. In other words, compulsion (ikraha) is forbidden because it is an action that is disliked or hated by God. “There is no compulsion in religion,” cannot then be viewed as merely a philosophical statement but rather a foundational value and an obligatory practice. Similar to 2:256, another Madinan verse also informs Prophet Muhammad (SA) that, “…, your only duty is to convey the message (3:20)” not compel people to convert. Thus, ideas about pluralism is not alien to Islam. Curtailing the freedom of conscience for any individual or group will be in defiance of the will of God.

The Quran also acknowledges cultural pluralism, “Another of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors (30:22).” In addition, the Quran notes that all Prophets and Messengers were sent to their people to preach in the tongue of the local population (14:4). The cultural, political, religious and economic pluralism, which we observe in all aspects of human civilization, is a purposeful divine action – “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community…(5:48).”

A contemporary scholar, Reza Shah-Kazemi noted in his paper “Tolerance” (in Amyn B. Sajoo, ed, A Companion to Muslim Ethics, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010),

“For Muslims, tolerance of the other is integral to the practice of Islam. It is not an optional extra, a cultural luxury. The Quran sets forth an expansive vision of diversity and difference, plurality and indeed of universality. This is all the more ironic since the practice of contemporary Muslim states, not to mention extra-state groups and actors, falls lamentably short of those expectations as well as of current standards of tolerance set by the secular West.”

Kazemi proposes developing pluralistic attitudes in Muslim societies as a, “principle at the very heart of the vision of Islam itself: a vision in which the plurality of religious paths to the One is perceived as a reflection of the spiritual infinity of the One.” InRisale-i Nur, commenting on the oft-cited Quranic verse of diversity (“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another,” 49:13) Nursi said, “Being divided into groups and tribes should lead to mutual acquaintance and mutual assistance, not to antipathy and mutual hostility.”

Mutual assistance is possible when there is mutual respect, which is fostered by an unequivocal commitment to engage with diversity, not just merely tolerating it.


Muslims who ignore the message of universality in the Quran often cite 3:19 and 3:85 as evidence that salvation belongs exclusively to Muslims. In 3:19, the Quran states, “True religion in God’s eye is islam.” Later in the same chapter, verse 85 reads, “If anyone seeks a religion other than (islam) complete devotion to God, it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the hereafter.” Several translations (such as M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s. “The Qur’an – A New Translation,” Oxford, 2004) used the lowercase “i” suggesting that islam is being used as a verb, which means submission or devotion to God. It is not being viewed only as the exclusive name given to the religion of Islam as it is practiced today. Even if literal exegesis is given preference, they still do not deny the truth contained in other religions. Several verses in the Quran present the act of freely submitting to God as a universal religion. In 10:72, Noah is commanded to submit (muslimin) and in 2:131, Abraham is asked to submit (aslim). Abraham and Jacob advise their sons to not die except in willing submission to God (muslimun) in 2:132. Japanese scholar, Toshiko Izutsu in “God and Man in the Koran” (Islamic Book Trust, p. 199. 2000) asserted that if islam is meant as submission and not a distinctive religious identity, then it closes the door of exclusivism and provides material for, “a very eloquent understanding of religious pluralism, one wherein all revelations throughout history are seen as different ways of giving to God that which is most difficult to give – our very selves.”


The Quran in 2:113 and 2:120 condemns those Christians and Jews who assert that only their followers will be offered salvation by God. Why would the same Quran then endorse such exclusivist attitude by Muslims? Pluralism, as it is understood today, is certainly not a major theme in the Quran. And yet when placed in the context of state of human knowledge in the seventh century, the message of the Quran unequivocally celebrates diversity and encourages engagement (li-taa-rafu in 49:13). Persian poet Saadi Shirazi best surmises the Quranic ethos of pluralism in his celebrated poem Bani Adam,

“All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn/from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us, all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain, you forfeit the right to be called human.”

(Gulistan, translated by Richard Jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications 2004).

Muslim scholars, political leaders and civic society must emphasize the pluralistic message of the Quran and urgently address the pervasive exclusivist attitude among many Muslims. Neglecting the pluralistic message of the Quran has allowed fringe groups to use anachronistic stereotypes about fellow Muslims, people of other faiths and entire nation-states, to unleash a form of violence rooted in extreme interpretations of Islamic eschatology (the study of end-of-time). From divisive identity politics to deranged messianic violence, all have their genesis in willful disregard of pluralism as a core Quranic value. It is not coincidental that societies that have embraced pluralism also tend to be more successful and peaceful.