Diversity and Pluralism in Islam: Historical and Contemporary Discourses amongst Muslims

Zulfikar Hirji

For more than fourteen hundred years, Muslims have held multiple and diverging views about many aspects of their religious tradition including religious authority, ritual practice, political power, law and governance, civic life, and the form and content of individual and communal expressions. Muslims have regularly debated amongst themselves about these issues. Despite the diversity amongst Muslims and the plurality of understandings about Islam, Muslims are regularly portrayed as internally homogenous and monolithic. This book challenges such propositions by examining the ways in which Muslims regularly debate amongst themselves about matters of common concern, the processes by which they discursively construct notions of self, other and community, and the socio-cultural tools they employ in so doing.

The first chapter by Zulfikar Hirji introduces the main subject of the book and sets out some of the complementary and cross-cutting themes addressed in the volume. These include: (1) the paradigmatic umma; (2) the social construction of the internal other; and (3) the discourses and counter-discourses of debating Muslims. Roy Mottahedeh’s chapter examines the manner in which different Muslim thinkers such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Rumi (d. 1273) and Hafiz (d. 1389-1390) interpret the hadith traditions of the Prophet concerning sectarian divisions in Islam. The third chapter by Dominique-Sila Khan draws on extensive ethnographic and archival study of ‘threshold’ communities in India to point out the problems associated with defining Muslims in a highly pluralistic context; particularly as such definitions were informed by the colonial imagination and then carried forward to meet the needs of the Indian nationalist project. Patrice Brodeur’s case study of Muslims living in post-9/11 America provides a contrast to Khan’s study. Here, intra-Muslim plurality is articulated with reference to both local and global discourses about jostling definitions of the umma. The fifth chapter by James Allan surveys so-called Sunni, Shi‘a and Sufi art from the classical Islamic heritage to determine the extent to which Muslims marked out ‘self’ and ‘other’. The theme of how Muslims have constructed the internal other is explored in R. Kevin Jaques’s case study of classical biographical texts about Shafi‘i and Hanafi legal scholars. Jaques shows how madhab-based scholars used literary devices such as cross-referencing, rhetorical flourish, and ‘spin’ to build up and dismantle the reputations of their opponents. Roman Loimeier’s case study compares and contrasts the discursive strategies of successive generations of tariqa-based reformers in Senegal and Coastal Eastern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and shows how internal others exist within a multi-dimensional space-time context. The volume concludes with John Bowen’s study of Muslim discourses of pluralism in South-East Asia and Europe. Bowen shows how different local contexts generate different solutions to the issue of pluralism.

This volume emerged out of a series of seminars on ‘Muslim Pluralism’ hosted at The Institute of Ismaili Studies between 2002 and 2003. The seminar series and this volume were developed, in part, as a response to the events of 11 September, 2001.