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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

The phrase al-hurriyah al-diniyyah means freedom of religion. One of the manifestations of personal liberty is the freedom of the individual to profess the religion of his or her choice without compulsion. Everyone in the society must have freedom to observe and to practice their faith without fear of, or interference from, others. Freedom of religion in its Islamic context implies that non-Muslims are not forced to convert to Islam, nor are they hindered from practicing their own religious rites. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are entitled to propagate the religion of their following, as well as to defend it against attack or seditious provocation, regardless as to whether such an action is launched by their co-religionists or by others. For the basic idea of freedom defies impositions of any kind on an individual's personal choice. Freedom of belief, like all other freedoms, operates as a safeguard against the possible menace of oppression from superior sources of power. This is also essentially true of the Islamic concept of this freedom. Fathi Uthman observes, "No power of any kind in the Islamic state may be employed to compel people to embrace Islam. The basic function of the Islamic state, in this regard, is to monitor and prevent the forces which might seek to deny the people their freedom of belief" (Huquq al-Insan bayn al-Shariah al-Islamiyyah, Beirut, 1982, p. 91).

The world today has become pluralist with variety of religions, languages and cultures in one country due to fast process of modernization, liberalization and globalization. In contrast, there was no concept of civil society in past. The states were all powerful and the people did not enjoy any rights. The modern democratic trend has conceded well-defined rights to the citizens. The civil society has its own autonomy in a democratic fabric, and the notion of human rights has acquired great significance - a fundamental to a society, which is pluralistic. It is unfortunate that the Islamic world is yet to cope with the notion of civil society. Most of the Muslim countries do not have democracy, where the rulers condemn human rights as a western notion and some even non-Islamic.

It is important to examine from theological perspective, what is the attitude of Islam towards pluralism? Does Islam approve of pluralism or promotes a monolithic society? While going through the Koranic teachings, it infers that Islam not only accepts the legitimacy of religious pluralism, but considers it quite central to its system of beliefs. The Koran says: "And We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, verifying what is before it of the Book and a guardian over it, therefore judge between them by what God has revealed, and do not follow their low desires from the truth that has come to you; for every one of you, We have appointed a (different) law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single nation: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has given you, therefore strive with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return, and then He will let you know that in which you differed" (5:48).

This is very seminal passage in favour of religious and legal pluralism, which Muslims, especially the Muslim regimes, have not considered seriously. The most significant and operative part of the above verse is "for every one of you, We have appointed a (different) law and way of life." The term "everyone of you" obviously denotes different communities. Every community, obviously religious or religio-cultural community, has its own law (shir'atan) and its own way (minhaj) and attains its spiritual growth in keeping with this law and way of life of its own. Thus, the Prophets of God were sent to different nations, who gave laws and indicated way of life to their people in keeping with their genius and that, which could ensure their spiritual and material growth. It is further emphasized in the above verse, "And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single nation" (wa lav sha'allah laja'alkum umatav wahida).

It was not difficult for God to make entire mankind one nation, but He graced mankind with pluralism as it adds richness and variety to life. Each nation has its own unique way of life, its own custom, tradition and law. God does not want to impose one law on all and creates "nations" rather than "nation." God has created different nations to try and test human beings in what has been given to them, i.e. different scriptures, laws and ways of life. And that test is to live in peace and harmony with each other, which is the will of God. Thus, the differences of laws and ways of life should not become causes of disharmony and differences. What is desirable for human beings is to live with these differences and vie with one another in good deeds.

In the last part of the above verse, it is stated, "Unto God you all must return, and then He will let you know that in which you differed" (fa'yu'nabi'ukum bima kuntum fi'hi ta'khat li'fu'n). It is therefore not the task of human beings to decide for themselves who is right or wrong. It will lead to disturbances and breach of peace. It should be left to God to decide when they return unto Him.

The above Koranic verse (5:48) has also another important dimension. The earlier part of this verse says, "And We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, verifying what is before it of the Book and a guardian (muhaimin) over it." This is very much modern in its approach. The Koran has thus come to vouchsafe for what was revealed earlier to different nations through their Prophets. All religions are based on the revelation from God. The Koran has come to be guardian of earliest truth revealed through other scriptures. It means that the laws, the ways of life may differ and yet religion (din), the divine essence, the divine truth, is the same, reflecting in all religions, in all spiritual traditions, and the humans have no right to reject the other as illegitimate, much less, false.

The Koranic pluralism finds different expressions in different places. The Koran does not maintain that there could be only one way of prayer to God. There could be more than one. Thus, the Koran says, "And every one has a direction to which he turns, so vie with one another in good works" (2:148). Ibn Kathir in his Tafsir stresses its inner resemblance's to the phrase occurring in 5:48 that "for every one of you We have appointed a (different) law and way of life." This verse clearly refers to different directions, different religious nations have adopted whereto they turn for prayer. All of them, however, submit to God and pray to Him. The Koran exhorts that the direction of the prayer, whatever its symbolic value for a religious community, does not represent the essence of the prayer or faith

This is further corroborated by the Koran: "It is not righteousness that you turn your face towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that one should believe in God and the last day and the angels and the Book, and the Prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and beggars and for (the emancipation of) the slaves free and keep up prayer and pay the poor rate, and the performance of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in the time of conflict, and these are they who keep their duty" (2:177).

Thus the above verse exhorts that the real aim of Islam is to produce ideal human persons. And only such persons are truly muttaqun i.e., God conscious and keepers of their duty to God. This verse needless to say, lends great support to the basic premise of religious pluralism by de-emphasizing a particular way of prayer and extolling the importance of human conduct and sensitivity to others suffering and ones own steadfastness in the face of calamities and afflictions.

The Koran is very particular about freedom of conscience, which is a key to pluralism. The Koran clearly state that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256), and maintains that all children of Adam are honourable (17:70). It does admit of inter-religious dialogue but with decorum: "And argue not with the People of the Book except by what is best, save such of them, as act unjustly. And say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him we submit" (29:46).

The Koran lays great stress on unity of humankind. It says: "Mankind is a single nation. So God raised Prophets as bearers of good news and as warners, and He revealed with them the Book with truth, that it might judge between people concerning that in which they differed. And none but the very people who were given it differed about it after clear arguments had come to them, envying one another. So God has guided by His will those who believe to the truth about which they differed" (2:213). The whole verse is rich with the spirit of pluralism and freedom of belief and conscience.

The theme of oneness of humankind is repeated in the Koran in different ways. We have been told that all human beings have been created of a single soul (4:1), they are all descended from the same parents (49:13), they are as it were dwellers in one home, having the same earth as a resting place and the same heaven as a canopy. It also stresses on racial, linguistic and national identities, which are projected as signs of God: "And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned" (30:22). It is also stated: "O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that you may know each other" (49:13). Thus national and tribal or for that matter other identities are necessary for knowing each other and it should not lead to any conflict, and hence the Koran clearly accepts the legitimacy of diversity.

The Koran also makes it clear quite forcefully that all places of worship should be respected and protected: "And if God did not check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries (swami), churches (biya), synagogues (salawat), and mosques (masajid) in which God's name is commemorated in abundant measure. (22:40). Commenting on it, Maulana Muhammad Ali writes in The Quran (Lahore, 1916, p. 672) that, "It deserves to be noted that the lives of Muslims are to be sacrificed not only to stop their own persecution by their opponents and to save their own mosques, but to save churches, synagogues and cloisters as well

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