There is today the question of inter-religious problems in our increasingly globalised world. Never before so many religions coexisted together. Every nook and corner of the world today is religiously plural. At one time Europe was almost mono-religious and so was America and Canada. Today not a single country of Europe can be said to be mono-religious. America and Canada are highly diverse today.
While diversity is a strength in a democratic society it can also become a serious problem in many cases. Thus in almost all the countries we are experiencing inter-religious conflict to a lesser or greater degree. Those who promote conflict in the name of religion do so by quoting scripture and thus they try to hold religious scripture responsible for the conflict. Muslims hold non-Muslims as kafirs, Christians think all non-Christians are pagans and doomed to hell or some Hindus hold Muslims and other non-Muslims as malechhas (i.e. impure).
We would like to throw light here in this article on how Qur'an views other religions or those who possess no scriptures. Does Qur'an reject other religions? And who is kafir? How do we define it? These are important questions and must be satisfactorily answered. Should one be tolerant or intolerant? Should one tolerate or respect other religions or reject them as false? The militant Muslims are extremely intolerant and reject all other faiths as false. They do not want to exist with other religions on equitable basis. Can such an attitude has any basis in the Qur'an? The militants of course think it has.
In fact as we have repeatedly maintained one has to have a methodology of understanding a scripture. A scripture should not be understood on selective basis and also should not be understood in literal way. It is often rich in symbolic and allegorical language. Also, scriptures respond to historical needs and one must keep historical situation in mind in response to which those verses have been revealed. The orthodox or militant Muslims do not keep these things in mind and neither consider historical situation to which the scripture responds nor its allegorical language.
Qur'an, all 'ulama agree, believes in unity of religions i.e. wahdat-e-deen. It accepts prophets preceding Muhammad (PBUH) as prophets sent by Allah and scriptures brought by them as revealed one like the Qur'an. Though these scriptures are revealed one but they think Qur'an has superceded them all and has finality over them all and the ones preceding them are of historical importance. They are no more valid. It is this attitude, which creates problem.
Here we have to examine the Qur'anic position as to whether such a position vis-୶is other religions is valid. It is true that Qur'an, according to Muslims, is a final revelation and Muhammad (PBUH) is a last Prophet. But there is nothing new in this position. Followers of all religions have such belief. The Jews do not accept Christ as prophet of God and Christians do not accept Muhammad as Prophet and Zoroastrians did not accept any other prophet after Zoarastra. The very identity of that religion depends on non-acceptance of other prophets.
To understand Qur'an it is important to note that part of it was revealed in Mecca and part in Medina. The social and religious situation in both the cities were very different. Mecca was a holy city for Arabs even before rise of Islam and had Quraysh tribe as most influential one and certain cans like Hashimites had leadership of religious establishment in their hands.
The Qurayshites were good diplomats and experienced administrators of affairs but had no written scripture or had no prophet or seer in their history. They only followed their tribal customs and traditions. In other words they did not possess any higher or divine truth. There were diverse traditions but no scriptural religion.
Madina, on the other hand, had different religious and social situation. It was religiously a plural society when Mohammad (PBUH) migrated to Madina. There were Jews, tribal Arabs like those in Mecca and Muslims as some tribal Arabs had embraced Islam while the Prophet was still preaching Islam in Mecca. When the Prophet migrated to Madina these three religious groups existed there. Also, Madina, while being multi-religious, was an oasis and had fertile soil. Thus socio-religious situation in Madina was thus quite different.
In Mecca the revelations deals primarily with moral situation and economic justice. In Mecca some were very rich and others very poor and this has created a social malaise and hence the Qur'an is greatly concerned with it in Meccan period (and this continues in the Medinese period also). The Meccan Surahs (chapters) show great concern for moral degradation and emphasises high morality.
Why the Qur'an strongly condemns idol worship and shirk (i.e. associating partners with Allah). Is this condemnation absolute and shows its intolerance towards idol worshippers? The orthodox would like to believe us it is so. But if one studies Qur'an very carefully and in all its complexity, one would realise Qur'anic position is not so simple as this. It is much more complex.
The Qur'an attacks idol worship for variety of reasons but not to show its intolerance towards idol worship as some would like to show towards Hindus in India. The Qur'an attacks idol worship as it had brought much moral degradation and superstitious beliefs. Those Arabs thought the idols were all powerful and their destiny was in their hands. They threw dice (azlam) before them to decide this or that way. Their total faith was in these idols as supreme power. These superstitious beliefs made them irrational and impeded their moral growth.
Qur'an points out that these idols cannot even create a fly, let alone control their destiny(see 22:73). Whereas Allah is all powerful and has created entire universe. Thus the argument is here on a very different plane. In India Dayanand Sarswat, the founder of Arya Samaj employed similar arguments against idol worship. He saw rats eating away the food offerings made to idols and he began to argue that these idols could not ward themselves from these rates, how can then they control destiny of humans.
Thus condemnation of idol worship as prevalent in Mecca was in response to the concrete situation prevalent there and to improve moral situation and create conditions for rational progress. Thus it is not idol worship per se which is being condemned but the consequences of such worship. The Indian Sufi Mazhar Jan-I-Janan had well understood this and maintained that there is qualitative difference between Arabs' idol worship before Islam and Hindus' idol worship in India. The Arabs worshipped idols as God while Hindus worship it as a means to God since Hindus believe in one God and consider God as nirgun and nirankar (i.e. without attributes and without shape) which is highest form of tawheed.
Qur'an also believes in freedom of conscience and declares la ikrah fi' al-din - 2:228 (i.e. there is no compulsion in religion). This principle is more important and it is in keeping with this principle that Qur'an says in chapter 109 that unbelievers can worship the way they do and Muslims will worship the way they do. Thus chapter 109 and verse 2:228 lay down freedom of conscience and principle of co-existence between religions.
The Qur'an also exhorts believers not to abuse others' gods lest they should abuse Allah out of ignorance and it also states that for every people Allah has made their deeds fair-seeming (6:109) and it is Allah who will decide about their deeds. Thus leave final decision to Allah and people should leave with tolerance and mutual cooperation. There are many verses to this effect in Qur'an see, for example, 2:148 and 5:48. Normally these verses end with excel each other in good deeds. The matter of worship, dogmas and beliefs vary and leave it to Allah to decide and it is for people to live in harmony.
No where Qur'an teaches intolerance, much less bloodshed in the name of religion as many extremist Muslims and on-Muslims believe. As far as people of the book (ahl al-kitab) are concerned Qur'an requires Muslims to respect them and states that it is the duty of all believers to show equal respect to all prophets named or not named in Qur'an (see verses 150-152).
The word kafir means one who hides the truth and people of Mecca who opposed the Prophet (PBUH) and persecuted him were denounced as kafirs because they refused to accept the truth and actively opposed the Messenger of Allah. Since people of Mecca did not possess any scripture nor any prophet had come there was need for the message of truth which was brought by Mohammad but refused by the tribal chiefs of Mecca including Prophet's own close relatives and were condemned as kafirs. They refused to see the light of knowledge and wanted to remain stuck to customs and traditions harmful to the society.
That however does not mean that any non-Muslim will automatically should be dubbed as kafirs. Any non-Muslim who possesses truth brought be their own prophets and seers cannot be dubbed as kafirs as they possess their own truth. And the Prophet (PBUH) entered into alliances with Bedouin tribes who had not entered into Islam and the Qur'an exhorts Muslims to honour the treaty with those tribes. It clearly means that Muslims can form alliances with those people who are not believers in Islam.
The situation in Madina was somewhat different as pointed out above. There were three different religions present i.e. Islam, Judaism and pre-Islamic paganism. The Prophet (PBUH) treated them on par and gave followers of every religion full freedom in keeping with the verse 2:256. It is popularly known as Mithaq-I-Madina. It was on the lines of modern multi-religious state in which people of all religions are free to practice their religion. Yet they constitute one political community.
Though Islam claims to be final religion, according to Muslims, superceding other religions, it never suppressed other religions. On the other hand, it allowed all religions to coexist. Some maintain that Islam clashes with other religions in its teachings and hence for Muslims those religions are not true and so how can it coexist with other religions. No one can deny that there are significant differences between Islam and other religions. For that matter no two religions can be same.
But coexistence does not require sameness, or even similarities. It requires tolerance and respect for others and the Qur'an precisely emphasises this. Its words fastabiqu al-khayrat (i.e. excel each with the other in good deeds) are very significant in this respect. This world is diverse because it is divine design and according to the Qur'an this diversity has been created to test us whether we can live in peace and harmony or act according to fastabiqu al-khayrat. (5:48)
According to the Qur'an all places of worship - churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are to be protected as in all these places Allah is remembered. (22:40) These places of worship are centres of divine remembrance whatever the way of remembering Allah. On no account Islam falsifies other religions but declares that Islam has come to reconfirm truth brought by other prophets of God. We confirm, Qur'an says, what exists before see 2:97, 3:3, 3:50, 4:47, 5:46 and so on.
Thus religion should not become cause of conflict. Also, great Islamic scholars have maintained hat Qur'an promotes the belief in wahdat-i-din (unity of religion). From India the eighteenth century Islamic thinker Shah Waliyullah and twentieth century Islamic scholar Maulana Abul Kalam Azad have discussed the theme of unity of religion on the basis of Qur'an. In fact Maulana Azad has devoted one full volume of his Tarjuman al-Qur'an on this theme.
There should not be any tension between Islam and other religions. If there is tension it is not because of teachings of Qur'an but activities of Muslims and Muslim organisation. Islam does not even believe in aggressive conversion campaigns. It clearly lays down that you should call others to the ways of Allah with wisdom and goodly words and argue with them in the best manner. (16:125).
Since there is no compulsion in religion no one can be compelled to convert and conversion campaigns often lead to tension between different religions. Even Prophet's duty is to deliver the message (of Allah) and no more. He should not despair if people do not accept. There are many verses to this effect i.e. 3:20, 5:92, 5:99, 13:40 etc. Thus no Muslim should coerce or induce any one to convert. All he/she can do is to deliver the message or explain the teachings of Islam and leave rest to the person to decide, to accept or reject.
There are many Da'wah (mission) organisations who enthusiastically preach to on-Muslims and even compete in countries like Africa, with Christian missionaries leading to inter-communal tensions. But this is certainly not the requirement of the Qur'an. Qur'an stresses co-existence rather than competition with other faiths. And since Qur'an requires deliverance of message with wisdom and goodly exhortation, there should not be condemnation of any other religion. It will defeat the very purpose.
Qur'an being divine very well appreciates the fact that religious belief is matter of inner conviction and inner conviction can be created only through deeper knowledge and persuasion. Coercion cannot lead to deeper conviction and without deeper conviction religion has no meaning. That is why Qur'an advises believers to be extremely polite and convincing in the matter and it is better to be tolerant than engage in polemics. Religious polemics has no place in the Qur'anic teachings.
But such polemics did take place in history of Islam and we also find confrontation with other religions. However, that is not because of religion but more because of struggle for power. Religion often becomes effective tool for power. Though Qur'an accepts validity of religions of people of the book and message of Moses and Christ, there were clashes between Jews and Muslims and Christians and Muslims.
The Crusades also led to much bloodshed between Muslims and Christians but a deeper study will show that these were territorial and not religious wars. It is totally wrong to think that Muslims spread out with Qur'an in one hand and sword in the other to convert the world to Islam. There can be nothing untrue than such a perception. This perception is a result of propaganda than reality.
In fact Sufis, who kept their distance from power structure coexisted with other faiths in perfect harmony. They had no ambition for power and hence understood the real significance of the hadith by the Holy Prophet that best jihad is speaking truth in the face of a tyrant ruler (afdal al-jihad kalimatu haqqin 'inda sultanin jairin). Those who have political ambitions try to prove that truth lies only in their religion and others follow untruth. Such polemics then generate bitterness and conflict.
One should always take care to distinguish between religious (theological) conflict and political conflict. We often confuse between the two and drag religion in political conflicts or settle political scores by invoking religious differences. If we can understand this difference much confusion can be removed. Today people often do not understand this difference and support those who exploit religious issues for political purposes and animosity results between two communities.
If Muslims understand the Qur'anic perspective for other religions they will have no feeling of hostility towards other religions, however different they may be. But the problem is Muslims themselves do not know the Qur'anic perspective and often they go along with the extremist Muslims who selectively quote the Qur'an to achieve their political ends, It is therefore duty of the moderate Muslims to challenge the extremists and put forward the correct Qur'anic perspective.
For this it is also necessary that moderate Muslims themselves should take pains to study the Qur'anic perspective first hand and spread it with the same sense of mission as extremists have. The moderates, however, are not able to develop such sense of mission and become drawing room critics. Surprisingly, they often support extremists by thinking that there is tension between Islam and other religions and peaceful coexistence is not possible or that there is conflict between the Qur'anic and other religions.
This means that extremist propaganda affects moderates themselves and this further strengthens extremists' hands. The media too is either highly prejudiced against Islam and hence takes extremists' claim seriously, or is ignorant about Qur'anic perspective and think Qur'an is hostile to other religions and all non-Muslims are 'kafirs' and that Islam totally lacks tolerance.
Muslims is the second biggest religion in the world and if moderate Islam as per Qur'an is popularised, it will give tremendous boost to world peace. The terrorist violence has not only distorted image of Islam but also has resulted in disturbing world peace. Though what terrorists react by and large o what US rulers do but terrorist reaction is not the right way or does not have Qur'anic endorsement. Killing innocent people, whatever the reason, can never be endorsed by Qur'an.
The moderates will have to come out of drawing rooms, study the Qur'an seriously and spread its message of peace and harmonious coexistence with a sense of mission. Nothing less will help. In doing this we will not only be spreading message of Islam and but also strengthen world peace.