Internal diversity, pluralism and the future of Islam – Dr Jawad Syed

Pluralism as a philosophy is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a society or political body, to enable peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions, and lifestyles. A pluralist society is one where religious, linguistic, social, cultural and other forms of difference exist in a harmonious and inclusive manner. Diversity encompasses all those differences that make individuals unique.

There are about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world today and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) comprises 57 countries. Muslims worldwide have numerous forms of internal diversity. They are divided not only into different sects such as Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ibadi but there are also various schools of jurisprudence such as Hanafi, Ja’fari, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. There is also a tiny population of the ghair muqallid, those who do not follow a specific school of jurisprudence, such as the Salafis and Ahle Hadith. There is further diversity within sects such as Barelvi and Deobandi (within Hanafi Sunnis), Ahle Hadith and Salafi (within ghair muqallid), Isna Ashari, Alevi, Zaidi, Bohri and Aga Khani (within Shias). Local traditions of different regions and cultures too have left their mark on Islamic interpretations and rituals, and there are notable differences in the way Islam is understood and practiced in Arab and non-Arab countries of the Middle East as well as in Africa and Southeast Asia.

In this day and age, if a Muslim scholar, writer or speaker insists that only his (or her) sect, school of jurisprudence or interpretation is ‘pure’ or true Islam and other paths are impure, lesser pure or a deviation from ‘true’ Islam, then in fact that person denies Islamic diversity and pluralism. Such a puritanical attitude may pave the way for intolerance, takfir (ex-communication and exclusion) and violence. It is no surprise that Islamist militant groups in the world today (such as the Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi), who have not only attacked non-Muslims but most of their victims include Sunni and Shia Muslims, are influenced by Takfiri clerics and ideologies.

Instead of seeking in vain to judge or evaluate other sects, sub-sects or schools of jurisprudence based on our ‘pure’ criteria and beliefs, while engaging in unscientific and selective discussions of Islamic history and hadith, and instead of trying to convert people of diverse Islamic backgrounds to our ‘true’ understanding of Islam, there is a need to accept and embrace diversity within Islam with an open heart.

To enable peaceful co-existence, there is a need to emphasize Islamic basic commonalities (such as the belief in one God, the Quran, the finality of the Prophet, and the undisputed status of the Prophet’s family or the Ahl al-Bayt) rather than creating fissures based on non-basic differences. Such commonalities have been previously discussed by Dr. Ali Shariati, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, Dr. Muqtedar Khan and several other scholars. Any criticism of diverse interpretations and practices of Islam should be rare and permissible only as a part of genuine academic and historical research. Such disagreements should be polite and scholarly, based on mutual respect and recognition and accommodation of Islamic diversity.

The notion of Muslim unity does not mean that all schools of jurisprudence or sects will become one or that people will ultimately converge on a single set of ‘pure’ beliefs and practices. Such a goal is impossible to achieve and may, in fact, lead to frustration and intolerance. Muslim unity means that each other’s beliefs, interpretations, and religious rituals should be accepted and embraced, and the quest for an idealized purity should be abandoned.

There is a need to understand that the internal diversity of Islam (political, religious and cultural) is a long-established ‘reality’ and inclusion is a social ‘behaviour’. Scholars and clerics of Islam should accept the reality (diversity) and strive to mould their and people’s behaviour (inclusion), instead of seeking in vain and dangerously to eliminate the reality (diversity). Each society should create institutional mechanisms (e.g., in the media, schools and universities, religious seminaries, multi-sect mosques, research centres, parliament and organizations) where people of diverse sects, sub-sects and schools of jurisprudence sit together, focus on commonalities and develop better understanding of each other’s differences and perspectives in a polite and embracing manner. Islamic seminaries may be developed by the government requiring that each graduating student (or cleric) will be taught by scholars of diverse sects and schools of jurisprudence, the curricula will represent various schools of thought and will not contain any insult or degradation of other schools or sects. Laws will be formulated and implemented to eliminate hate speech based on religious and sect- or school-based differences. Muslim scholars and opinion leaders should promote a notion of Islam based on pluralism, diversity and inclusion. This will, in turn, enable a path to peace (not only within Islam but also with non-Muslim communities), progress, and a better future for the Muslim world.