Religious Diversity in the Horizon of the Dialogue of Civilizations

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Religious Diversity in the Horizon of the Dialogue of Civilizations([1])

The Meaning of Religious Diversity:

Before discussing the role of religious diversity in the dialogue of civilizations, we must determine its meaning. Two meanings are possible for this term:

First: The pluralism of religious and sects in the one society as is the case with us in Iraq. This is a normal situation, the Islamic legislation dealt with it as the reality which results from freedom of choice, which is one of the basic principles of the Islamic law. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” [Surah of the Cow: 256] “Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” [Surah of the Cow: 62].

The Islamic state has given those people the full rights given to any citizen in the state. The principle of the rights deserved by the individual is his citizenship which is shared by all. As for other aspects such as religion, sect, and nationality, they do not affect the individual deserved right. The Prince of the Faithful (Peace upon him) had to withstand the defection of many notables within the society which led to bitter wars because of his just policies. Others wanted the different classes of society to be distinguished in rights and privileges, a policy which became part of society at the time but which was unacceptable to the Prince of the Faithful (Peace upon him) who was raised by the Messenger of Allah (Prayers of Allah and His Peace upon him and his household).

There are many examples of this in the Prince of the Faithfull’s biography. One is the incident which occurred with the blind Christian. The Tradition states that the Prince of the Faithful (Peace upon him) was walking in the streets of Kufah when he passed by a blind old beggar. He stood, wondering at what he saw, and said: “What is this?” They said: “O Prince of the Faithful, this is a Christian man. He became old and incapable of work and now he begs for his sustenance”. He said: “You were far from justice! You used him, and now that he is old, you left him to his own means”([2]).

When the Prince of the Faithful appointed Malek Al-Ashtar as the prefect of Egypt, he wrote to him a long letter of commission explaining in it how he expects from his prefect to rule the state. His injunction for the citizens was equal and the same for all. An example of it is his saying: “And make your heart feel mercy for all your flock” ([3]), and many other examples which do not recognize differences between them, all are to be equal in their right of citizenship.

The feeling of empathy and equality of all went further than that for the Prince of the Faithful (Peace upon him). An example of that is when he felt great sorrow and pain cutting through his heart, so that he felt that death was even easier than his pain when he heard that soldiers of Mu’awiyah raided Al-Anbar and looted the what several women (including non-Muslims) ha with them, so he said: “I have come to know that every one of them entered upon Muslim women and other women under protection of Islam and took away their ornaments from legs, arms, necks and ears and no woman could resist it except by pronouncing the verse, “We are for Allah and to Him we shall return.” (2:156) Then they got back laden with wealth without any wound or loss of life. If any Muslim dies of grief after all this he is not to be blamed but rather there is justification for him before me” ([4]).

Islamic history testified to the fact that Christians, Jews, and Mandaeans have always held high positions in the Islamic state, were given opportunities to excel in sciences and many of them created great fame for himself. This all means that they had equal opportunities with the Muslims.

The Second Meaning of Religious Diversity:

The Second meaning is the diversity of the juristic opinions and visions of the Mujtahids based on their disagreement about understanding the legislative texts. This can go to the extent of having more than ten different juristic views about the same issue. Yet, this is a positive state which the Islamic legislator himself founded. Some of the narrations indicate that the Imams (Peace upon them) used to deliberately give different answers to the same questions due to very important points of interest which they’ve mentioned([5]). This is considered an important point passed down by the Imams of the Prophetic Household (Peace upon them) to their followers, namely: opening the door of Ijtihad (diligence in deriving verdicts) and giving them the freedom of looking into affairs and deriving rulings for them from the original sources of legislation (the Holy Quran and the Noble Sunnah) so that each generation would be given the opportunity to understand religious texts according to the accumulative knowledge base, culture, and social developments. This would provide each generation with the ability to deal with the new affairs which occur in the reality it lives in, and to benefit from all the tools provided for it whilst remaining far from imitation and inflexibility.

The Imams (Peace upon them) ordered the scholars of religion not to interpret the texts according to a certain limiting sole understanding. When they find something difficult for them to understand it they have to leave it to the understanding of a later generation which will understand it according to the requirement of its time, taking its need from it. A man asked Imam As-Sadiq: Why is it that the Quran would only increase in freshness through its spread and repeated recital? The Imam said: Because Allah (Exalted is He) did not make it for a particular time and no other, nor did He reveal it to a particular people excluding others. It is new in every age, and fresh for all people, until the Day of the Judgment” ([6]). It is also narrated that Ibn Abbas said: “Do not interpret the Quran, the passage of time will interpret it”.

The Advantages of the Diversity of Diligent Understandings within the Framework of Juristic Discipline:

The advantages of this diversity in the views of the jurists appear in several ways:

1- It provides each generation with the opportunity to understand the texts in accordance with the requirements of the age, the circumstances of the time and the place, and the other elements which form the understanding of the religious texts.

2- They protect religion from the errors and mistakes of its scholars and bearers. Had the religious law been only one understanding then this would reflect on the religion itself and lead people to reject it. This was what happened in the Catholic Church during medieval times when its enforcement of one style of life only led many of its followers to reject religion altogether later. What if only the vision of the Takfiris and the terrorists was imposed on the entirety of Islam? But when there are several moderate and cultured points of view then they would protect Islam from such erroneous perspectives.

3- Finding alternative outlets to hardship and giving the Ummah more choice. If an individual refers to a jurist who forbids shaving the beard while this individual faces difficulties in applying this ruling, he can refer to another jurist who does not forbid shaving it and so forth. This is why the jurists are committed to referring their followers to other jurists in the necessary precaution (Ihtiyat Wujubi) in a process well defined in its rules. Meaning that the individual is committed to refer to a certain Marja’ whom he maintains has all the qualification of religious authority. But he may refer to others within the framework provided by the Marja.

The affair is neither random nor selective so that each person can refer to whoever he likes according to his desires, selecting anomalous ruling in each affair. This selectiveness would lead to a distorted religion in which the general and basic features of religion are not longer preserved([7]).

What Diversity Means in Islam:

In conclusion, the Islamic perspective concerning religious diversity is both constructive and civilized in the full meaning of both words.

It is constructive because it contributes greatly to the preservation of society’s unity, and the preservation its rights on the basis of universal and equal citizenship. It is civilized and cultured because it aids the application of religion on both the individual and social levels flexibly, solving the problematic conflicts between religion, culture, modernity and so on.

However, Islamic law’s sublime and pure approach for dealing with religious diversity was badly abused. The first meaning turned into a state of war and sectarianism and bigotry at the hands of merchants who benefit from those conflicts for their own purposes and interests which have little to do with religion.

As for the second meaning, it was used by callers for modernity and unchecked innovation as an outlet to distort religion and give up its commitments under the pretext that they are visions of diligence which express the views of those who came up with them, not religion itself, so there is no point in committing to them. This line of thought is not sound at all, for the verdicts of the Mujtahids are an expression of the rulings based on legal arguments leading to the necessity of applying them after referring to a Mujtahid who has all the qualifications of religion authority.

I ask Allah to grant your conference success so as to research into this issue and analyze it well to reach a mature position, making it fruitful by Allah’s leave.

([1]) The statement of Marja Sheikh Al-Yaqubi (May his shadow be preserved) in response to the call directed by the chair of the University of Kufah to him to participate in a conference held in the university with the collaboration of the Intellectual Studies Institute in An-Najaf under the same title on 20-21/2/2014 in the presence of scholars, intellectuals, and people interested in religious dialogue in a number of Islamic states.

([2]) Wasa’il Ash-Shi’ah, Vol. 11, p. 49, chapter 19, Tradition 1.

([3]) Nahj Al-Balaghah, Speech 53.

([4]) Nahj Al-Balaghah Speech 27, Exhorting people for jihad when he heard the Mu’awiyah’s army raided Al-Anbar. Translation from site:

([5]) See our book: “The Brilliant Jurisprudence about the Fasting of the Traveller”, page 140.

([6]) Bihar Al-Anwar, Vol. 2, p. 280.

([7]) Ibn Al-Hajjaj said, mocking this selective attitude:

Drink wine, commit adultery and sodomy

And excuse yourself in each affair with an Imam’s view