Modern society, one wishes or not, is essentially a pluralistic society. The great religions of the world, on the other hand, have originated, more often than not, in monolithic societies. Thus the theologies of these religions were tailored to suit such societies. Even if a religion originated in a society with more than one religion and subsequently became a dominant religion in that society, its theology evolved as if it was the only valid religion.
In order to understand it in proper perspective one could divide religion into three related categories: 1) the revelatory aspect of religion which is contained in the compilation of revelations received by the prophet or intuitional sayings of its founder; 2) theology developed on the basis of these revelations, sayings of the prophet, and the immediate circumstances in which those observations were made and 3) popular practices, customs and traditions among the followers of that religion.
Thus most fundamental to a religion should be its revelatory aspect which lays down the principles and guide lines for its followers. However, often this part of religion is sidelined and theologies developed by eminent theologians of the faith and traditions and popular practices become more widely accepted. The real problem in accepting validity of other religions is not revelatory or intuitional aspect but the latter two i.e. theological and popular traditions. Sometimes popular practices and traditions are much more accommodative than the theological aspect.
The real problem in accepting the validity of other religions is mainly posed by theological rather than revelational aspects. Theology is more of a human construct than divine injunction though it is based on revelation. However, theological formulations are primarily based on human understanding of the revelatory text and this understanding is influenced by human circumstances. If the religion concerned becomes dominant one or is embraced by the rulers its theology often reflects this dominant, majoritarian attitude.
Christianity as long as it was religion mainly followed by the oppressed people of Palestine its dominant values were very different. The Bible is full of sympathy for the oppressed, exploited and rejected of the society. There was much more emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount than on conversion and damnation of nn-Christian. However, after few centuries when it was embraced by the Roman rulers, the attitude of its theologians underwent change and it acquired the characteristics of a religion of the dominant ruling community. Now there was greater emphasis on damnation of non-Christians.
Islam too has similar history. Its Meccan phase is much more humane and full of sympathy for the oppressed and exploited. In fact Mohammad Taha of Sudan, emphasises this in his Second Coming of Islam. He feels emphasis should be on the Meccan practices to make modern Islam more humane and pro-oppressed. Though the Qur'anic revelations remained consistent with the Meccan revelations (there cannot be contradictions in divine revelations), the Medinese practice of Islam is more problematic.
In Madina Islam soon became religion of majority and despite its ideals of recognising Christianity and Judaism as religions brought by the prophets of Allah Moses and Jesus, it came into clash with Jews who began to resent dominant position acquired by Islam and thus the Medinese Jews began to secretly conspire with Meccan unbelievers to defeat Islam and Muslims.
The Prophet (PBUH), as long as he was alive, remained a role model for his followers and he practised the Qur'anic values like 'adl (justice), karamah (human dignity) and rahmah (compassion). He tried to accommodate Jews as best as he could in the given circumstances and even entered into a pact with them giving them full freedom to follow their religion. They were made part of the city community of Madina. But conflict of human interests did bring about clashes between them and Muslims. And that the Muslims were emerging as a dominant community made things more difficult.
Subsequently Islam emerged as a religion of the most powerful empires of the world and this became the classical period of Islam. Most of the theologies and juristic theories and formulations came into existence during this period. These theologies do reflect the dominant position of Muslims during the period. The Qur'an had shown great respect for all the prophets and mentioned by name several of them, though not all of them. The Qur'an also made it obligatory for Muslims to show equal respect to all these prophets and those who do not are real unbelievers.
Yet, Muslims and Jews on one hand, and Muslims and Christians on the other, came into serious conflict. The crusades, though apparently religious wars were in fact, struggle for power between the two dominant communities. Both communities wanted to occupy as much political space as possible and fought to extend their sphere of influence. It is interesting to note that during the Medinese period there is clash between Muslims and Jews and more amiable relations between Muslims and Christians. But later on main conflict developed between Christians and Muslims.
The reason is obvious. In Madina there were no Christians and the Jews enjoyed dominant position before advent of Islam. However, this position of the Jews was threatened after Muslims occupied both social and political space and Jews felt they were being marginalised. Thus conflict developed between them and it resulted in bloody battles.
However, when Islam spread to areas under Roman Empire, it clashed with Christians and this conflict with Christians continued as Islam spread to Europe where Christianity was a dominant religion. This conflict acquired the form of theological war as reflected into the Muslim and Christian theologies of the period. And since there was no Jewish empire anywhere at that time, there is no further history of conflict between two communities until the state of Israel came into existence in 1948.
Thus it will be seen that there is no real religious conflict between these religions. Yet, if one examines the pronouncements of theologians of that period one will find serious conflict and even damnation of each other. It was not really conflict of religions and question of spiritual salvation but of political domination and socio-cultural space.
In India too, there was in fact no conflict between Islam and Hinduism in religious and spiritual sense. Those Muslim theologians, who were part of Muslim ruling establishments, tended to adopt condemnatory attitude towards Hindu religion. Their condemnation was not based on close study of Hindu scriptures but on popular practices prevalent. Also, those theologians trying to go closer to the rulers or ruling establishments, tended to show greater degree of hostility towards the religion of rival community and their attitude also reflected arrogance of ruling theologians.
It is also important to note that there is as much inner plurality within a religious community as between external religious communities. One finds as much degree of hostility between inner plurality as among external plurality. The Christians developed several sects in its early period and leaders of one sect persecuted the people belonging to other sect, especially when these leaders happened to be in dominant position or with dominant power structure.
Thus there was serious conflict between Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Christians and Monophysites when Islam appeared on the scene. The Monophysites on the border of Roman empire who also happened to be Arabs were severely persecuted by the Roman Christians as they happened to be in dominant position. Persecution was so severe that many of these Monophysite Arab Christians preferred to adopt Islam rather than remain Christians and face persecution. The Roman Catholics also severely persecuted the Protestants later in Europe when Martin Luther rejected the sole papal authority.
Islam also developed several sects in its early period. The first schism appeared on the question of succession to the Prophet (PBUH) i.e. between Sunnis and Shi'ahs. When the Umayyads constituted the ruling dynasty the Shi'ahs were seriously persecuted. The persecution was so severe that the Shi'ahs had to adopt the doctrine of taqiyya i.e. dissimulation. To avoid persecution they practised the Sunni faith publicly but followed the Shi'ah faith in private.
The Isma'ilis faced similar persecution at the hands of the Abbasids for close to two centuries and the Abbasids hunted down for the Isma'ili Imams who went into seclusion and lived life hidden from their own followers. There was dissension within the Sunnis and one Sunni sect persecuted other Sunni sects. There was great conflict between those who believed the Qur'an was co-eternal with Allah and those who believed it was created by Allah. Imam Abu Hanifa, an eminent Sunni jurist was severely persecuted and lashed publicly for holding the opinion that the Qur'an was co-eternal with Allah.
This internal plurality within every religious community also became cause of severe conflict and damnation of dominated community by the dominant community.
Thus it will be seen that internal pluralism has caused as much problems as the external pluralism. Tensions and conflicts, as shown above, have not so much on account of religious teachings per se as on account of either power struggle or similar other material causes. The Qur'an does not teach disrespect to any other religion. Christians and Jews were treated as people of the book (ahl al-kitab) and this category was extended to other faiths such as Zoroastrians (by the Prophet himself) and Hindus by the 'ulama.
It is true that often some 'ulama would declare Christians or Hindus as kafirs but it was again for reasons other than religious. Imam Taymiyyah, for example, declares Christians as kafirs in thirteenth century when Christians and Muslims were engaged in crusades. Similarly, many 'ulama in India often pronounced the fatwa of kufr against Hindus in the course of power struggle. Similarly some 'ulama belonging to one school of thought issued fatwa of kufr against the 'ulama of another school of thought.
Also, there have been different trends both orthodox as well as liberal in the same religious community. Sufis, for example, adopted very liberal attitude and never condemned people of other religions. Muhiyuddin ibn Arabi who was founder of sufi school of Wahdat al-Wujud (Unity of Being) was quite open to all other faiths. In fact the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud itself, as propounded by him, is quite liberal one and implies that real being is one and all of us are His manifestations. Thus all being His manifestation, there should be no wall of separation between them.
The sufis practised another important doctrine called sulh-I-kul meaning total peace and by implication peace with all. Such doctrines are very helpful for a pluralist society. In India, which has been a pluralist society for centuries sufi doctrines were extremely helpful in maintaining inter-religious peace. It is important to note that the sufis maintained their distance from power structures and were not involved with power seeking rulers and hence could be more effective in maintaining religious harmony. They believed in dialogue and were not averse to cultural adaptation.
It was this sufistic attitude coupled with Bhakti movement in India that religious synthesis, rather than religious confrontation resulted. Many syncretistic religions like Kabir Panth, Sikkhism, Pranam Panth, Imam Shahi sect etc. came into existence. Also, common people in India developed respect for all religions. The Indian tradition encouraged sarva dharma sambhava (equal respect for all religions) and the Islamic tradition emphasised al-khalq-u-'ayalullah (entire creation is Allah's family). Thus both these traditions promoted adjustment with plurality. Thus in medieval India pluralism became way of life for the people.
However, Europe was not so fortunate. When India was enjoying comparative religious harmony and peace Europe was involved in inter-religious conflict of severe kind. On one hand, there were anti-Jewish pogroms, and on the other, intense struggle between Protestants and Catholics. But renaissance ushered in an enlightened era later on. It was this renaissance period, which encouraged growth of science and Europe began to change radically.
But modernity and scientific progress in Europe was not without problems for the Asian and African countries. These countries experienced colonialism and colonial policies were based on divide and rule. India, which had enjoyed relative religious peace throughout medieval ages, began to experience religious conflict during modern colonial period. Thus modernity came to India at the cost of religious strife. The religious plurality became a severe problem during modern period in India.
Thus as far as India was concerned modernity dawned with religious conflict partly because of divide and rule policy of the British colonialists and partly because of indigenous factors. Modernity encourages competitiveness and in a religiously pluralist society communal differences become the main fault lines. Thus the Hindu elite and the Muslim elite began to compete for scarce jobs and took the form of communal strife. This was further exacerbated by the British policies both of divide and rule and that of stifled economic growth.
Now the process was reversed. While European society began to experience greater degree of secularisation both due to renaissance and faster economic growth, the Indian society began to experience more and more communalised and the strife continues until today. Thus modern democracy, which was thought to be a great boon for its emphasis on secular governance, often became a nightmarish experience due to caste and communal differences getting exacerbated. Caste and communal identities became the main source of political mobilisation for the political elite of these caste and community elites.
In all communal and religious strifes today, religious leaders are not as much involved as the political leaders. More intolerance is shown towards other communities by communally charged political leaders than religious leaders. However, it does not mean that religious leaders do not play any negative role; they do. Either they collaborate with communal leadership or remain silent spectators of hate campaign by communal leaders. In the Gujarat carnage last year the religious leaders in Gujarat chose to remain silent and thus strengthened the hands of communal fanatics in massacre of innocent people.
A modern pluralist society cannot function smoothly unless politicians continue to exploit religious differences for political mobilisation. Unless politics is issue-based and value-based the pluralist societies will continue to experience intense strife. Also, religious leaders should shun power ambitions. Unfortunately some religious leaders choose to collaborate with communal politicians in order to fulfil their ambitions for power.
Religion has staged come back for numerous reasons. Firstly, in modern secular societies economic and political competition creates uncertainties and religion becomes an anchor for common people. The modern societies uproot people from their place of birth and force them to migrate from less developed to more developed areas in search of livelihood. This creates sense of alienation and rootlessness. Religious identities alone can provide sense of belonging and rootedness.
A modern urban society creates sense of directionlessness and meaninglessness. It is religion which can remove this sense of directionlessness and meaninglessness and thus religion becomes a very important source of intellectual certainty. All this leads to greater urge to belong to a religious tradition and a strong sense of religious identity. And in a multi-religious society this becomes a source of conflict.
It is therefore highly necessary to maintain harmony in modern multi-religious societies. This can be done only if members of all religious communities strive together to usher in a just and equitable society. No religious community should be unfairly treated. Modern societies consist of more educated and aware people and hence they are quite sensitive to injustice of any kind. This sense of injustice will always be politically exploited and would become sure recipe for strife.
Second important thing for modern pluralist societies is to treat religion only as what it is meant to be i.e. a source of spiritual and moral growth, and not as a means for fulfilling political ambitions. It is only the modern committed intelligentsia, which can evolve checks and balances to maintain inter-religious harmony. For this it is not only necessary to develop equal respect for all religions but also to shun religion-based politics. In modern competitive societies it is very dangerous to indulge in religion-based politics. It will surely lead to religious extremism, as we have been experiencing in India and Pakistan.
Religious extremism causes great deal of violence in the society and innocent people are repeatedly butchered as we have seen in the case of Algeria also. No religion permits violence against defenceless people but religious extremists are blinded by their rage against the enemy. They legitimise their feeling of revenge by invoking religion against the innocent people of other religion. The modern society has developed highly destructive weaponry, which can kill hundreds at a time.
Thus those who are committed to true spirit of religion should cultivate tolerance and respect for different religions and should see to it that religious differences are solved through dialogue rather than through confrontation. Modern urban life is far more tension ridden for ordinary people and any emotional issue can lead to religious extremism and militancy.
Thus truly committed people would always try to promote better understanding among people of diverse religions. Peace, in such pluralist societies, should be the first priority for those committed to religious teachings. Pluralism, as a doctrine can greatly help as it means accepting equal validity for all religions and to live in peace with people of other religious traditions. This is true spirit of pluralism as a religious doctrine.