To Embrace Pluralism and Democracy, We Must Repudiate Islamism
I urge you and myself to be God-conscious and truthful:
[O, community of faith, be God-conscious, and be Truthful 9:119]
As American Muslims, there are two factors that have intensified our desire to embrace religious pluralism and democracy in American society. The first is our neighbors' increasing interest in understanding our worldview, in large part because of repeated terrorist acts by members of our extended community, and the second is the heretofore unfamiliar anti-pluralistic strain in the current political season.
Both of those factors require acceleration of our embrace of pluralism and active conversation with the broader American society, both socially and politically. However, I submit to you, that the Islamist mindset that has characterized our institutions and sermons is antithetical to this pluralism from which we have benefited.
The solution cannot be hypocrisy: continuing to profess the Islamist anti-pluralist orthodoxy within our communities, while trying to present a democratic facade to others outside these communities. This hypocritical two-facedness was condemned in the following Hadith.
Bukhari and Muslim narrated, on the authority of Abu Hurayra, that the Prophet (p) said:
[You will find that people have different intrinsic characteristics. The best among them in the pre-Islamic age of ignorance are also the best in Islam if they understand. And you will find among the best people in this religion to be the ones who hated it the most before it arrived. And you will find among the most evil people to be those who are two-faced, meeting this group with one face and that group with another]
As I shall argue later, in line with the views expressed by Bassam Tibi in Islam's Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change, that the word for "understanding" in this Hadith (فقهوا) is the crux of the matter. Do we understand "understanding" in the rationalist sense of my hero Ibn Rushd, reading scripture and tradition with rational thought as the arbiter, or do we understand it in the theological and juristic Islamist sense that has dominated Islamic societies (giving primacy to traditional reading of scripture over rationalism)?
I choose the former, and read the Tradition thus: The best people are the ones who are discerning, in the rationalist sense, regardless of their religion, and the worst people are those who are two-faced, regardless of theirs.
Let me explain further why Islamism grounded in Qur'an and Sunnah in the sense of static anchoring is inconsistent with pluralism. Tibi makes a correct distinction between diversity and pluralism. Thus, the verse that we often cite to claim that traditional Islamism is consistent with pluralism:
[O mankind, we have made you into males and females, and made you into peoples and tribes, so that you may get to know one another, the best among you are those most God-conscious, and God is all knowing 49:13]
To understand why this refers to diversity, while still asserting supposed supremacy of Islam, which is antithetical to pluralism, let's examine an historical episode that is often cited as a shining example of Islam's consistency with pluralism: The Prophet's (p) dealing with Najran (south of Hijaz, in the direction of Yemen).
In our contemporary Muslim apologetics, we often cite the Prophet's (p) permission to the Christian delegation from Najran to pray inside his mosque, and cite the verse:
[Say, O people of the Book, let us come to common terms between us: that we worship none but Allah and do not associate any others with him, and that we do not take any among us as lords in place of Allah; then if they turn away, say we are Muslims 3:64]
In fact, within its historical context, this was not at all pluralist. Indeed, the reference to worshipping none but Allah and not associating others with him were direct refutations of the Christian theology of divinity of Christ. To see this, recall how the story with the Christians of Najran started. The Prophet (p) sent them a warning letter:
«باسم إله إبراهيم وإسحاق ويعقوب، من محمد النبي رسول الله إلى أسقف نجران إن أسلمتم فإني أحمد إليكم إله إبراهيم وإسحاق ويعقوب؛ أما بعد فإني أدعوكم إلى عبادة الله من عبادة العباد وأدعوكم إلى ولاية الله من ولاية العباد، فإن أبيتم فالجزية، فإن أبيتم آذنتكم بحرب والسلام»
[In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From the Prophet and Messenger of God, Muhammad to the Bishop of Najran. If you have submitted to God, then I thank for you Allah the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac. Now I say this: I am calling you to the worship of God away from the worship of his servants, and the protection of God away from the protection of people. If you refuse, then you must pay jizya (a tribute and per-capita tax). If you refuse, then I warn you that I shall declare war against you. And I close with the greeting of peace.]
The Christians of Najran were terrified, and after deliberating, they decided to send a delegation to the Prophet (p). At first, they changed into fancy clothes and went to meet him, but he would not return their greeting of peace. They consulted with the merchants whom they know, `Uthman ibn `Affan and Abdulrahman ibn `Awf, who, in turn, consulted with `Ali ibn Abi Taleb. The latter advised them to change back into their more ordinary travel clothes, which they did, and then the Prophet (p) returned their greeting of peace.
Then ensued a debate. They claimed that they had already submitted to God, and worshipped only him, implying that he should not demand that they pay tribute and otherwise should not fight them. The Prophet (p) disagreed, questioning them about their views on the divinity of Christ. They turned the question around, and asked him how he would characterize it given his acceptance of the virgin birth of Jesus. He replied that he didn't have definitive knowledge of the matter, and asked them to wait. Then he received the revelation:
[The example of Jesus, for Allah, is like the example of Adam, whom he had created out of dust, saying "be," and he was. Truth is revealed from your Lord, so do not doubt it 2:59-60]
[Then, whoever debates you about him [Jesus] after the knowledge that you have received, then say let us bring our children and your children, and our women and your women, then let us supplicate to God that he may curse those who speak untruth.]
The two groups went out into the desert in a field to make these supplications, wherein the Prophet (p) brought his beloved daughter Fatima, her two sons Hasan and Husein, and husband Ali ibn Abi Taleb. Instead of proceeding with the religious duel, as it were, the Bishop said that they do not wish to participate (Muslim commentators tell us that he did this for fear that the Prophet's (p) theology may be the correct one) and agreed to pay tribute. Thus, the Christians of Najran were the first to pay tribute to the new Islamic state. This was simultaneously a sign of submission, acceptance of the sovereignty of the Islamic state, and protection money, because they were not required to serve in the military, but would still be protected.
This is clearly not an example of pluralism. It is toleration of diversity, on condition that Islam's superiority is unquestioned. I quoted Bassam Tibi at the beginning. He announced in 2002 that he has quit interfaith dialogues, in which he had been engaged for two decades, because other Muslim interlocutors refused to give up the Islamist mindset, continued to confuse dialogue with proselytization (da`wa), and to profess ultimate supremacy of Islam.
In this regard, the accommodation of diversity in early centuries of Islam was, indeed, exemplary by the standards of its time, and throughout the medieval period. However, it falls tragically short of the post-enlightenment democratic notion of pluralism.
The litmus test for any of our community leaders in embracing pluralism and democracy is this: Are you willing to accept that other traditions and their standards of truth are equal to yours (whether they call themselves Sunni, Shi`a, Christian, Baha'i, Athiest, or anything else)? If not, then no twisting of Qur'anic verses and Prophetic traditions can suffice. You are still being two-faced if you claim to embrace pluralism.
If we are still under the illusion that we can accept the Jamat-i-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood, or any other Islamist organizations, as potential partners in the modern world, we need only read the following two quotations of their top ideologues:
Mawdudi is quoted thus:
I tell you, my fellow Muslims, frankly: Democracy is in contradiction with your belief … Islam, in which you believe, … is utterly different from this dreadful system … There can be no reconciliation between Islam and democracy, not even in minor issues, because they contradict one another in all terms. Where this system [of democracy] exists we consider Islam to be absent. When Islam comes to power there is no place for this system.
Tibi, Bassam (2009-02-25). Islam's Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change (p. 226). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.And Qaradawi is quoted thus:
Democracy is a Greek term which means the government of the people... democratic liberalism came into the life of Muslims through the impact of colonialism. It has been the foremost dangerous result in the colonial legacy.”
Tibi, Bassam (2009-02-25). Islam's Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change (p. 232). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.The alternative to Islamism is rationalist and secular: Our religion contains many excellent elements, that we wish to preserve and develop, and they inform our politics. However, we also recognize that our Canonical texts are anchored in a time of religious empires, to which they remain captive.
Muslim societies have tried to escape the text-bound, juristic, Islamist pull, first in the example of the Mu`tazila, then in the philosophies of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, and the social scientific study of Ibn Khaldun, but the rationalists lost the cultural battle.
The victorious traditionalist approach continued to work reasonably well while society still resembled the world in which the Canonical texts are anchored, but failed miserably as the world changed drastically from that world.
That is why our Muslim societies have failed. And this is why we are here, to escape that failure.
We may not have overarching political, religious and philosophical solutions and leverage to bring Muslim societies to a post-enlightenment mindset that accepts pluralism. However, we ourselves belong to this post-enlightenment world. There are others within our Muslim community and in other communities who wish to take us back to darker times. We stand with those who accept modern pluralistic democracy, regardless of their religion, which means that we repudiate Islamism in all its forms.