Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement

A Partnership between the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion,
Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, & USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Pluralism : An Islamic Perspective
A Q&A with Dr. Fathi Osman

Can you give us the contours of the pluralistic polity that the prophet(saw) set up in the early Medinain period with Jews and Christians and what lessons can we learn from that experience to help reform the present day polities in the Muslim world and their interaction with non-Muslim states. 

Dr. Fathi Osman: In Medina, the prophet interacted with several tribes which were independent entities. In his constitution with these different entities, he stated the rights and responsibilities of all of the entities which comprised the Medinain polity. These entities consisted of the immigrants of Mecca, the Ansar of Medina which comprised of the Aws and Khazaraj tribes, and Jews of Medina who were an independent identity with their own way of life that had some sort of relation with the other Arab tribes. The prophet had to maintain a balance between all these different groups so that each group can feel as if they are a part of the whole without one dominating the other. At the same time he kept the civil rights of the Jews of Medina by giving them autonomy and had them play a constructive role in the Madinain society in the realm of defense. With this type of early state every component was given the rights and responsibilities to participate equally in the society in accordance to their means and status.This type of example provides a model on how to deal with other. This is a main criterion in judging a civilized state. The other in our example can be considered the Jews of Medina where they played an integrative component in the establishment of the state. Hostilities between the different components such as the one between the Jews and Muslims in later periods is not the principle, but rather the exception, which was re-established by Islamic civilization in later periods. We need to be enlightened by these historic facts in trying to reestablish our societies in modern times. 

Pluralism in western discourse is constantly associated with secular thinking with little or no room given to religious conceptions of reality aside from peoples personal lives. How can we use the Islamic civilizations as historical model to show that pluralism need not be necessarily grounded in secular conception and that there is no contradiction between religious world views and establishments and a pluralistic society. 

Dr. Osman: With regard to pluralism it happened that the in modern times we have the nation state that is based on a certain ethnicity that dominates with other ethnic and religious minorities under their hegemony. Accordingly, some sensitivities and perhaps problems and conflicts happened between the different components of the nation state. Also in the middle Ages, we had the conflicts between the different components of the European empire and with other empires. So people assumed that because the cause of many of these conflicts were religious they assumed that by ignoring this factor they can achieve a pluralistic society. 

This does not solve the problem of ethnic differences and modern nation states ran across the problem the encountered in the middle ages in terms of the different ethnicities as opposed to the different religious views. This fact was clear in Britain with the conflicts among the Scots and Welsh which was partially resolved by giving some autonomy to these different ethnic groups. Also this fact is underlined in some of the separatist movements in Spain which are trying to secede from the state. 

So secular pluralism did not solve the problem of conflicts among societies because secularism emphasized the resolution of the religious differences while ignoring their ethnic differences. By emphasizing the divine origin of people, they realize their equality in front of the creator and lack of superiority over others. Through Islamic pluralism, other religions can be respected through based on a deep sense of faith that religious plurality is necessary manifestation of peoples freedom to choose their faith which is guaranteed by the Quran. 

What are the essential elements of Islamic pluralism and how to they contrast to modern understandings of pluralism ? 

Dr.Osman: My central understanding in Islamic pluralism is that the basic idea that all human beings have the same origin and God has conferred dignity on humans as a race collectively as the Quran states in Surah 17 Verse 70. It is the belief of the Muslim that all humans have dignity conferred on them by the creator. This is different from considering them equal on other basis of nationality or humanity. In these cases there is room for arguing about this equality or whether their are exceptions based on racial or geographical reasons. While in Islam it is a matter of faith and it is from God. 

The other difference between Pluralism based on Islam and the one based on secularism is that the Quran speaks about dignity and responsibility while the other emphasizes rights. With this emphasize on rights people forget that they have obligations to tend to. This happened in France after the revolution where we find that the second constitution emphasizes both rights and responsibilities. Similarly this happening in former communist states were people recently began acquiring their rights are now talking about how to motivate people to do their responsibilities. So we find that the Islamic pluralism has a wider base. This does not mean that the religious basis of pluralism is in contradiction to philosophically based pluralism and benefits can be drawn from this experience with pluralism. Also alliances can be established between the two camps of pluralism by emphasizing the common grounds they share. 

Dear Dr. Osman, German orientalist's claim that the true Islam can not accept a Western styled pluralism. is it allowed within the Islamic understanding of pluralism to propagate anti Islamic thoughts, to criticize the Holy Qur´an or the Prophet? Do you think that the so called alternative life styles such as homosexuality pertain also to scope of pluralism? Can you recommend me a good book in English or Arabic on this very important issue? 

Dr. Osman: With regard to Western Civilization, these wide expressions of pluralism are ambiguous because many of these ideas have been globalized. It is not necessary that one take a certain set of ideas as a whole package. There is definitely merits to Western civilization such as hard work and honesty, but at the same time there are negatives. One can not say that homosexuality is a norm even in Western culture and many people do not like it even in the West. This type of pluralism is somewhat exaggerated and ignores the society as a whole and focuses on individuals. The positive attributes in Western civilization outweigh its negatives and that it is why it still survives. 

When the Muslims found other civilizations in history they benefited from them without rejecting them and played a role in injecting a spiritual and moral values in them to keep these desperate civilizations under one banner. The same can be done in western civilization today, where Muslims can play a constructive role in injecting a moral spirit that can spiritually revive it and at the same time benefit from the positives that exist.

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