The Gift of Diversity
by Shiban Akbar
"You have your religion and I have mine" - these are the celebrated words of The Qur'an [109:6]. The verse urges people of opposing faiths to learn to live parallel lives. A corresponding message is contained in several other verses. We are reminded that the path of religion is not a path of coercion but something to be accepted freely, based on our ability to discern between what is right and what is wrong: "There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break (2:256). The Sufi aspect of Islam known as 'Tasawwuf' is emphatic about acting with the heart, because a ritual act without love is a futile act. The Sufi doctrine is also emphatic about cultivating the heart, and opening it up for God and in the service of His creation.
Abu Talib was a devoted Uncle of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad and a prominent leader of the Arab clan to which the Prophet belonged. He was a staunch supporter of the Prophet and defended him against his adversaries in his mission as the Messenger of God, and therefore contributed to the cause of Islam. His son was the famous scholar Ali who was also completely devoted to the Prophet and his cause (and after the Prophet's death became the last of the four Caliphs of Islam). Despite such close family associations, and actively experiencing religious fervour the Uncle never became a Muslim. The Blessed Prophet never forced him to embrace Islam; and as a result of this there was no ill feeling between them: in fact Uncle and Nephew loved each other dearly. This is a wonderful example from Islamic history that teaches us to be cautious before we make gratuitous personal remarks about 'kuffar' (Disbelief) and 'kafir' (Non-believer) - when addressing those who follow a different path or no faith at all. The wisdom of the following verses brings this teaching truly into focus.
We are required to reflect on and accept the gift of diversity in humanity and maintain harmony between communities and between each other despite the differences: "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. In God's eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him." (49:13)
"…If God did not repel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, where God's name is much invoked, would have been destroyed…" (22.40). The Blessed Prophet was commanded to convey a firm reminder to the Jews, Christians and the Muslims not to go to extremes and resort to any disproportionate measure in the exercise of religion as that would be construed in God's eyes as abandoning the righteous path: "Say, 'People of the Book, do not overstep the bounds of truth in your religion and do not follow the whims of those who went astray before you - they led many others astray and themselves continue to stray from the even path'." (5:77).
'The Prophet's Constitution of Medina' unequivocally accorded religious freedom to the Jews of Medina. They enjoyed equality and protection from injustice and oppression; were given support; and were regarded on the same basis as Muslims with all sincerity.
With freedom comes responsibility. I would like to summarize here the teachings of Syed Rashid Ahmed, my mother's late Uncle who was also my Sufi Teacher. 'Religion is a kind of obsession and of all the obsessions human beings have, the one for religion is the most intense. This obsession can drive us to forget our humanity. We become blind in the name of religion. We squabble over religious space in the name of religion. But all-encompassing God is neither confined in a Mosque nor in a Temple. Foremost, God resides in our hearts. We kill people in the name of religion. We don't pause to think that the person whose life we took was not bereft of God as his life was from God! Our love for humanity must come from our religious conviction. Devoid of that love and fellow-feeling, our acts of worship would resemble hollow customs and ceremonies. There are three responsibilities attached to a religious person. They have an obligation to themselves; an obligation to others; and an obligation to God and The Prophet. The person who lives for self only is by no means a religious person. They are religious when their love transcend to the all-embracing human race'.
"…do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits… (5:87). While Islam gives us freedom to choose or disregard "true guidance" (2:256), having chosen the path of a Muslim we have to live within the limits and boundaries set by the religion. Obedience to God and his Messenger, the Blessed Prophet then becomes law for us, and disobeying them becomes a sin.