Primarily it was the Companions of the Prophet who made it their life’s mission to spread the beautiful message of Islam to Arabia, Persia and North Africa. After several centuries, it was the galaxy of Muslim Sufis and Muslim traders who took the message of Islam to new lands like the Indian subcontinent and the Far East, up to Indonesia and East Africa. Then, in the grand scheme of Allah’s plans, after several centuries, in these present times, both the working class and professional Muslims got the honour to grab this opportunity to be representatives of Islam to the West. This opportunity that we have been blessed with, necessitates that we carry on the responsibility as Muslims and represent Islam in our spirit, words, and actions in this part of the world.
Islam, Pluralism and Transnational Movements of People: Islam has witnessed various waves of migration. Historically, very few people got this opportunity of migration. Those who are living in the West, a land where Islam has been strange and not a known faith, are a part of this opportunity. They have been chosen by Allah to introduce the message of Islam in these lands. We need to realise that it’s a privilege, an honour, and a pride, which only a very few generations in Islamic history have had, and that it should be taken seriously. Primarily it was the Companions of the Prophet who made it their life’s mission to spread the beautiful message of Islam to Arabia, Persia and North Africa. After several centuries, it was the galaxy of Muslim Sufis and Muslim traders who took the message of Islam to new lands like the Indian subcontinent and the Far East, up to Indonesia and East Africa. Then, in the grand scheme of Allah’s plans, after several centuries, in these present times, both the working class and professional Muslims got the honour to grab this opportunity to be representatives of Islam to the West. This opportunity that we have been blessed with, necessitates that we carry on the responsibility as Muslims and represent Islam in our spirit, words, and actions in this part of the world. There are huge similarities between Muslims in India, Europe and the UK, as they all live in multicultural and plural societies, where the majority of people don’t believe in Islam. Therefore, it is very important to understand the main challenges for Muslims living in a plural society and how they respond to them. A plural society is not something unique to India or the UK but is now a global phenomenon because at least 1/3rd of the Muslim population throughout the world lives in different countries as Muslim minorities. At an accelerated rate, the ratio of immigration is on the rise and Muslims are a part of non-Muslim majority countries throughout the world and especially in the West. Globalisation is connecting different countries and societies due to technology, IT, trade and interdependence on each other. Even Muslim-majority countries have been influenced by non-Muslim populations. The cultural barriers are rapidly disappearing and people are beginning to understand each other and connect with each other as a part of this process. As a result, the whole world is becoming a global village. Hence under these circumstances, there is a clear need and understanding regarding the nature of Islamic life and the role of Muslims in such societies.
Islamic History and Pluralism: Islamic history shows examples of multicultural and multiethnic societies. It is not a new phenomenon for Islamic societies. The Quran projects Prophet Musa’s society as this model in detail. It is repeatedly mentioned and he himself is named 130 times in the Quran. The condition and situation of his society are quite similar and relatable to our situation. He was sent to a multicultural society. He was a believer, a Muslim, belonged to an immigrant community and was part of an oppressed minority. The ruling majority at that time were pagans. The society of Prophet Muhammad PBUH also was a plural society in which polytheist tribes, influential Jewish tribes, Christians, and Arabs of Madeenah coexisted. Within Muslims, cultural diversities were seen between Muhajirs and Ansars. Throughout the rule of the rightly guided Caliphs and Umayyads, the societies experienced an extraordinary increase in cultural and religious diversities. Later on, some very prominent Islamic scholars like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah RA, Shah Dahalvi RA and others also faced this challenge within their societies and addressed it. The Ottomans of Turkey and the Mughals of India have modelled a leadership of plural society for hundreds of years, models that are not found in any other medieval history.
Pluralism and Modern Theory of Sociology: In modern sociology, there are two major views or theories of dealing with a multicultural and plural society in contemporary times. 1. Melting pot theory: The melting pot theory of multiculturalism assumes that various immigrant groups will tend to melt together, abandoning their individual cultures and eventually becoming fully assimilated into the predominant society. We can compare this to a jar of syrup, in which different ingredients mix to become one. They all lose their identity and only the dominant one’s flavour remains. After melting together, a new product is formed. Effectively, those in the majority give it its identity and those in the minority lose their identity. We cannot separate the different ingredients from this syrup. France, Germany and many European countries accept this plurality as a model and in practice. In India, the revivalist Hindu movement advocates this. This theory is recently gaining strength and support in the new global scenario. They want the dominant culture to prevail and the Muslim minority culture to melt and get absorbed. We can observe many racist elements in European countries that do not want Immigrants to flourish, and they get culturally abused. 2. Salad bowl theory: A salad bowl or tossed salad is a metaphor for the way a multicultural society can integrate different cultures while maintaining their separate identities, contrasting with a melting pot, which emphasises the combination of the parts into a single whole. In this, society is like a salad where every ingredient maintains its identity. This diversity is believed to be a characteristic of the postmodern age. They propagate it as celebrating cultural diversity with differences in their ideas, attitudes, and tendencies.
Islam and Pluralism: Foundational Concepts Islam has made a clear distinction between basic principles and the commandments of the faith (deen), which are religion and culture. When it comes to culture and other lifestyles, it follows the salad bowl theory. Islamic pluralism accepts cultural diversity and acknowledges that diversity is a natural part of human society and important for human identity. Within Muslims as well, it accommodates the differences in ways of practising Islam in terms of language, food, attire, and celebrations from one another due to their different circumstances on the condition that it lies within the realm of Islam. Islam protects and safeguards this diversity. The Quran also considers racial, linguistic, and national differences. Differences in race and language are interpreted as divine indications. The Quran says: “And of His signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for those of sound knowledge.” (Al-Quran, 30:22) The above verse implies that humans must respect and learn from diversity. Throughout Islam, the themes of variety and multiculturalism can be found in the Holy Quran and Sunnah. Another verse of the Holy Quran mentions: “O humanity! Indeed, we created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware”. (Al Quran, 49:13) This verse informs us that our differences should not be a source of discord. But then, when it comes to the Islamic principle of the deen, both theories are rejected. Islam doesn’t assimilate into other cultures and neither forces others to follow it. Islam promotes pure and unadulterated submission to Allah’s commands. Deen is pure and it is the ultimate truth. As a principle, in matters of deen, there is no force or compulsion. The Quran also recognises religious freedom, emphasising the importance of religious diversity. It is stated in the Quran: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” (Al-Quran, 2:256) Therefore, Islam does not promote ‘religious diversity’ in the commonplace sense, because religion is a matter of truth for Islam, and man has the freedom to accept it or reject it. Islam aspires and prefers that people acknowledge this truth out of their true will and choice. Peace may be established among diverse religions through their commonalities and the best way to exploit these commonalities and reduce the religious divide is through civilizational dialogue.
Islam promotes a practice of dialogue and discussion with people of faith and no faith. More importantly, the discussion should be within the limits of decency. It should be carried out without insulting the other and with respect. “Invite (mankind, O Muhammad) to the way of your Lord (i.e., Islam) with wisdom (i.e., with the Divine Revelation and the Quran) and fair preaching and argue with them in a way that is better. Truly, your Lord knows best who has gone astray from His path, and He is the Best Aware of those who are guided.” [al-Qur’an,16:125] Historically, there are many instances where the Prophet showed exceeding tolerance and respect for the people of other faiths and dealt respectfully with his opponents. The Umayyads’ Cordoba and the Abbasids’ Baghdad, became centres of excellence by welcoming and nurturing the best minds from different regions, backgrounds, faiths, etc. Consequently, these dynasties through their pluralistic mechanisms developed powerful and vibrant civilisations. However, this pluralistic dimension of Islamic teachings has received little attention in our time despite its vital significance for society. In today’s globalised and sometimes polarised world, there is a dire need to understand the pluralistic perspectives of Islamic teachings to develop an environment of peaceful coexistence and harmony in society. Muslims should also learn different sciences from other cultures as well as make their own contributions too in this process. In conclusion, here are three important characteristics that Islam prescribes for a plural society: 1. Muslims should have complete freedom to practise Islam and maintain their Islamic identity. They should aspire, maintain, and strive for it. 2. Other religions must also have complete freedom to practise and maintain their religious identity. 3. There must be a healthy dialogue between everyone to accept the truth.