[Vol. I No. 16] 01 - 15 February 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family

    ISLAM AND PLURALISM   Professor A.R. Momin

The terms plural society and pluralism, which came into vogue in the 1960s, have been increasingly used in anthropology, sociology, political science and international relations. The term plural society has been used to describe societies that are characterised by substantial racial, ethnic and social diversities and cleavages. Anthropologists have described many such societies as composite, multiple and dual societies. In the social sciences the term pluralism has been used in two rather different senses. In one sense, pluralism is said to be a property or character of societies that are marked by the coexistence of several distinct groups and cultural communities within a single political and economic system. By virtue of the fact that these groups and communities are governed by the same economic and political processes, they tend to be inter-dependent. At the same time, however, they have a good measure of autonomy. In the second sense, pluralism has a distinct political connotation and is regarded as a necessary condition for the viability of democracy in complex societies. In democratic pluralism, the decision making processes devolve upon a wide variety of autonomous political institutions and social groups.

The first usage of the term pluralism has gained wider currency in the social sciences. Another term, which has more or less the same connotation and which has surpassed pluralism in usage, is multiculturalism. Most contemporary societies, whether in Asia and Africa or in Europe and North America, are now plural and multicultural in the sense that they are composed of many distinct, self-conscious ethnic groups and cultural communities. The great migrations of the post-War period have not only altered the demographic composition of many countries in Europe and North America but have also challenged the assumption of a homogeneous national culture as the edifice of the nation-state. The process of globalisation, which has brought about an enormous amount of economic, financial, political and cultural uniformity and homogenisation across large parts of the world, has also contributed to the revival or reinvention of ethnic identities, thanks to the unprecedented advances in information and communication technologies.

Pluralism is not only indicative of an important facet of the political and social reality of our times but it also entails a set of moral premises and value-orientations, including an open and ungrudging acknowledgement and acceptance of ethnic and cultural diversity, disavowal of forced assimilation, tolerance and peaceful coexistence in a humane and democratic framework, respect for human rights, including community and minority rights, and commitment to dialogue and other peaceful methods of conflict resolution.

This article seeks to demonstrate that the contemporary discourse of pluralism and multiculturalism can profitably draw upon some of the valuable insights and contributions of Islamic civilization.

The Islamic perspective on diversity

The Islamic faith is founded on the edifice of two cardinal principles: the oneness and omnipotence of God, and the unity, equality and brotherhood of humankind. Islam takes cognisance of racial and ethnic diversities that characterises human societies across the world and holds that these diversities are divinely ordained. Thus the Qur'an says: "If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made humankind one people, but they will not cease to differ" (11:118). The Qur'an further says: "And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and colours; verily in that are signs for those who know" (30:22). Lineages, tribes and ethnic groups, which characterise human societies everywhere, are said to have been created by God (Qur'an, 25:54). However, these divisions are meant to serve the purpose of ethnic or cultural identification; they are not indices of social ranking, hierarchy or prestige. The only worthwhile distinction or honour in the Islamic view is piety and virtue. Thus the Qur'an says: "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is one who is the most righteous of you" (49:13).

The varied manifestations of diversity include variations in livelihood, behaviour patterns, knowledge and skills and the distribution of resources, including power. Islam takes due cognisance of such variations in respect of livelihood (2:212; 13:26; 16:71), knowledge (2:247; 58:11), and the distribution of wealth and power. The Qur'an says: "Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to people by turns" (3:140).

The universality of prophecy

In the Islamic view, God is not a parochial or racial deity like Jehovah, but the Lord of the universe and of all humankind. "All of mankind is God's family", says a tradition of the Prophet. The Qur'an says that prophets have been sent to all people in all parts of the world (35:24). Muslims are required to believe, not only in the prophecy of Muhammad, but in that of all other prophets (1,24,000, according to a tradition of the Prophet) who were sent to humankind at different points of time, as well as in all divine scriptures (2:4, 285; 3:84; 4:26, 162). Islam holds that all the prophets carried basically the same divine message. The Islamic view of prophecy, therefore, is inclusive rather than exclusive, universal rather than parochial.

According to the Islamic view, God's omnipotence and majesty transcend the diversity of modes and sites of worship. Thus the Qur'an says: "Had God not checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure" (22:40).

Tolerance and peaceful coexistence

The Qur'an explicitly maintains that there is no place in Islam for compulsion (2:256). It says: "If it had been thy Lord's wish, everyone in the world would have believed; will you then compel people, against their will, to believe" (10:99). The Prophet is told to say to the unbelievers: "For you, your religion, and for me, mine" (109:6).

The Prophet is advised to invite people to the path of righteousness and guidance, not through intimidation and coercion, but in a gentle and amiable manner. Thus the Qur'an says: "Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in the best of ways" (16:125). It is significant to note that when God asked Prophet Moses to go to the Pharaoh in order to invite him to the path of righteousness, he was told to "speak to him mildly, perchance he may heed the warning or fear God" (Qur'an 20:44). The Qur'an advises Muslims not to revile those who worship idols or images (6:108).

The people of Semitic religions, especially Jews and Christians, share some fundamental articles of faith with the Muslims. The Qur'an emphasises that these commonly shared tenets should provide the basis for dialogue and reconciliation between Muslims and the People of the Book. The Qur'an says: "O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God, that we associate no partners with Him; that we appoint not, from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than God" (3:64). The special affinity between Islam and other Semitic religions is reflected in the permission accorded to inter-marriage between Muslim men and Jewish or Christian women and the permissibility of the flesh of animals slaughtered by Jews or Christians (Qur'an 5:5).

Following the conquest of Makka, the Prophet entered the city with his companions. The people of Makka were terrified and apprehensive about the likely prospect of their summary execution on the orders of the Prophet, for they had subjected him to the cruelest kind of humiliation and torture and had finally driven him out of the city. They stood before him in fear and trepidation. "What kind of treatment do you expect from me?", he asked. They said in a trembling voice "You are our kind and affectionate brother. We expect the sort of treatment that is expected from a kind brother". The Prophet smiled and said: "Today you will not be taken to task. Go, you are free!". They could scarcely believe their ears and fell at his feet, overwhelmed as they were by the Prophet's magnanimity and compassion.

Following the Prophet's migration to Madina, Makka was faced with a severe drought. Since Makka was a barren desert, food grains had to be brought from other areas. Najd was the only area which was unaffected by the drought and could send food grains to Makka. A group of Muslim soldiers happened to capture an influential person from Najd, named Thamama ibn Athal. He was brought to Madina and taken to the Prophet. The Prophet invited him to the Islamic faith, which he refused and retorted that he was ready to pay ransom for his release. The Prophet ordered that he be tied to a pillar in the mosque. On his instruction, Thamama was provided with food. After a while the Prophet invited him again to embrace Islam, but in vain. A few days passed. Finally the Prophet ordered his release. He was so touched by the Prophet's generosity and kindness that he fell at his feet and embraced Islam.

Thamama told the Prophet that food grains from his region of Najd were sent to Makka and if he permitted, he could block the supply. The Prophet agreed to the suggestion and Thamama blocked the supply of food grains to Makka, which caused a great deal of hardship to the people there. They sent an emissary to the Prophet, who told him on their behalf that he had always preached love, compassion and charity and that the people of Makka were on the verge of starvation. The Prophet immediately dispatched a letter to Thamama, asking him to lift the blockage and restore the supply of food grains. He then sent 500 gold coins for the poor and destitute people in Makka.

The attitude and behaviour of the Prophet towards Jews and Christians in Madina exhibited remarkable tolerance, broad-mindedness and compassion. Some Jewish families lived in his neighbourhood in Madina. If one of their children fell sick, the Prophet would make it a point to visit the distressed family as a gesture of good will. If the funeral of a Jew passed by and if he was around, he would stand up as a mark of respect for the deceased.

Islam does not allow aggression. Only a defensive war is permitted (Qur'an 2:190). When the Prophet passed away, the area under the control of the Islamic state exceeded three million square kilometres. The cost involved in the conquest of this vast area, in terms of war casualties, was less than 300.

Islam's attitude towards other cultures

Since Islam is a universal religion, it is characterised not only by a great deal of inner strength and resilience but also by a substantial measure of openness and flexibility. It eschews the narrow path of xenophobia, ethnocentrism and exclusion. The Islamic attitude towards other cultural traditions is reflected in its view of the pursuit of knowledge and the learning of foreign languages, in the legitimacy accorded to regional customs and usages, in the adoption of foreign technology, and in the acceptance of foreign medicines as well as cultural patterns.

The Prophet is reported to have said: "Wisdom is (like) the lost animal of a Muslim; he catches hold of it wherever he finds it". The Prophet regarded the acquisition of knowledge as an obligation on every Muslim and exhorted his followers to carry the torch of learning far and wide. He warned against concealing or withholding knowledge. Islam opened the portals of knowledge and learning to all and sundry, men and women, rich and poor, high and low.

In the Battle of Badr, Muslims scored victory over the unbelievers and more than seventy prisoners-of-war were captured by them. Umar, who became the second caliph after the demise of the Prophet, suggested that they should be executed. (Incidentally, the Bible says that if the enemy is defeated in war, their men, women, old persons and children should be executed). Abu Bakr, who succeeded the Prophet as the head of the Islamic state, disagreed with this opinion and suggested that they should be set free in lieu of some ransom. The Prophet agreed with this suggestion. A ransom of four thousand dirhams or a hundred camels was fixed as ransom for each of the captives. Those who paid the ransom were set free. In the case of those who could not afford the ransom money, their relatives and friend came to their rescue and arranged for the ransom amount. Some of the captives had neither the ransom money nor friends or relatives who could pay the ransom money on their behalf, but they knew reading and writing. The Prophet declared that a captive, who is unable to pay the ransom money but knows the art of writing, could secure his release by teaching ten Muslims children how to write. It was from one of these prisoners that Zayd ibn Thabit, who later served as the Prophet's secretary, learnt writing. Imam Bukhari has reported this incident under the caption: sanction accorded to the appointment of pagans as teachers of Muslims. Interestingly, a few of the prisoners had neither the capacity to pay the ransom money nor the ability to read and write. They were set free on their assurance that they would not wage a war against Muslims in the future.

The Prophet occasionally adorned Persian and Roman attire and advised the use of Indian medicines. Once, when one of his companions fell seriously ill, he advised him to consult a doctor in Madina who was a Christian. In the Battle of the Ditch, one of the companions, Salman the Persian, suggested the digging up of a wide ditch around the city of Madina as a defence strategy. The Prophet readily accepted the suggestion. In some of the battles fought during the time of the Prophet, foreign techniques of warfare were used without any reservations. The Prophet instructed his secretary Zayd ibn Thabit to learn Syriac, Hebrew and Persian languages so that he could carry on the Prophet's correspondence with foreign rulers. Islamic law recognises the validity of some of the local customs and usages, known as Urf and Aadah in legal parlance, in judicial pronouncements.

The Islamic attitude of openness towards other cultural traditions was evidence in later centuries as well. During the reign of the Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (ruled 754-775 A.D.), a movement for the translation of the scientific, philosophical and literary works of ancient Greece, Egypt and India into Arabic was initiated. A number of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Magian and Sabaean scholars and translators, such as Hunanyn ibn Ishaq or Johannitus (d. 877), Yuhanna ibn Masawayh (d. 873), Thabit ibn Qurra (d. 901), Abu Bishr Matta (d. 940) and Qusta ibn Luqa (d. 912), were associated with this movement. Hunanyn ibn Ishaq, a Christian translator, was appointed head of the Academy of Science (Dar al-Hikmah) in Baghdad, established by caliph al-Mamun (d. 833A.D.). He also served as physician to caliph al-Mutawakkil. Ibn Maymun or Maimonides, one of the distinguished philosophers and translators, was a Spanish rabbi. Jurji ibn Bakhtishu (d. 880), a Christian, was appointed as a court physician by caliph al-Mansur. The group of translators included Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi (d. 994), a Magian, and Mankah and Ibn Dahan, who were Hindus. Caliph Harun al-Rashid set up a large hospital in Baghdad under the supervision of a Christian physician Jibril ibn Bakhtishu.

Legal pluralism in the Islamic tradition

The twin sources of Islamic law, namely the Qur'an and the Prophet's Sunnah, provide the fundamental principles and precepts governing spiritual and temporal matters. These principles and precepts also provide sufficient scope for dealing with unforeseen situations and circumstances. Muslim jurists formulated two methodological principles for the interpretation and elucidation of Islamic law in the context of changing times and situations. These two principles are analogical deduction (Qiyas) and consensus among jurists and scholars (Ijma'). In addition, they enunciated a rational and creative methodology for legal innovations (Ijtiahad). All these methodological approaches were basically derived from the Qur'an and the Prophet's Sunnah.

During the early Islamic period, people directly turned to the Prophet for the clarification and elucidation of legal principles and rulings. After his demise, his companions migrated to different lands and set up study circles and schools there. With the passage of time, Muslims living in different cities and towns began to follow the legal opinions (fatawa) and judicial pronouncements of the companions who had settled there. Thus, the people of Madina generally followed the fatawa of Abdullah ibn Umar; the people of Kufa those of Abdullah ibn Masud; the people of Makka those of Abdullah ibn Abbas; the people of Egypt those of Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As. During the first three centuries of the Islamic era, several distinctive schools of jurisprudence emerged. These schools of jurisprudence were named after eminent jurists, including Hasan of Basrah (d. 728), Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 777), Awzai (d. 773), al-Tabari (d. 922) and Abu Thawr (d. 860), among others. Most of these schools died out with the passing away of their founders or shortly thereafter. Four major schools of jurisprudence, which flourished and have survived to this day, include those of Abu Hanifa (d. 767), Malik (d. 795), Shafii (d. 795) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855).

Legal pluralism in the Islamic tradition is reflected at three distinct levels: (i) the coexistence and accommodation, rather than suppression, of different interpretations of Islamic law (ii) the cognisance of regional, local practices and usages in judicial pronouncements and legal rulings (iii) the tolerance and accommodation of sectarian and denominational differences.

The Prophet's Companions (Sahabah) and the Followers (Tabiun) had certain differences in matters of jurisprudence, legal pronouncements and religious rituals. Some of them recited the Bismillah aloud in prayers while others preferred to recite it quietly. Some recited the Qunut in the pre-dawn prayers while others did not. In spite of such differences they never hesitated to follow one another in congregational prayers. Imam Shafii considered frogs, crabs and tortoises impermissible for eating while some other jurists did not prohibit their eating.

Islamic law (Shariah) follows the path of ease and convenience for people, and eschews the path of hardship and inconvenience. An eminent Muslim jurist Ibn al-Qayyim says: "The basis of the Islamic Shariah is wisdom and welfare of the people in this world and in the Hereafter. This welfare lies in complete justice, mercy, well-being and wisdom. Any thing that replaces justice with oppression, mercy with harshness, welfare with misery and wisdom with folly, has nothing to do with the Shariah". As we shall presently see, several eminent jurists, scholars and men of piety have viewed legal differences in terms of convenience and ease for the common people. One of the important methodological principles in the Hanafi school of jurisprudence is al-Masalih al-Mursalah, which emphasises the greater good and the convenience of people in legal rulings and pronouncements.

In spite of differences in legal pronouncements and rulings, the scholars and jurists of the early Islamic period had tremendous regard and respect for one another. They never doubted the honesty, integrity and sincerity of their contemporaries. They never allowed differences in legal matters to affect inter-personal relationships. Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 730) has perceptively observed: "If a new issue leads to differences among people, without causing hostility, malice, ill will or division, we regard it as a part of Islam. But if a new issue results in creating animosity and incrimination among Muslims, if it causes the snapping of the bonds of brotherhood, it has nothing to do with Islam."

Sometimes, the scholars of yore abstained from performing some of the religious rituals which they considered obligatory, out of deference for their seniors. When Imam Shafii visited the tomb of Imam Abu Hanifa in Baghdad and it was time for the pre-dawn prayers, he did not recite the Qunut prayers which, in his opinion, were obligatory. When someone questioned him about this, he replied, pointing to the tomb of Imam Abu Hanifa: "How could I do so before this Imam, who did not think that the Qunut prayers are obligatory in the pre-dawn prayers."

The early scholars, jurists and men of learning viewed the legal differences among their predecessors and contemporaries, not as a bane, but as a blessing in disguise. Sufyan al-Thawri, for example, used to say: "Do not say that the Ulama have differed in such and such matter; say, instead, that they have provided convenience and ease for the people (by their difference of opinion)." Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani, the distinguished followers of Imam Abu Hanifa, had certain differences in matters of jurisprudence and legal pronouncements with their mentor. Yet, their opinions were incorporated in the corpus of Hanafi jurisprudence. Hanafi scholars and jurists have maintained that there is nothing objectionable if Hanafi scholars and jurists reach a consensus in respect of an extraordinary case in an extraordinary situation, whereby they give a legal opinion in accordance with the principles and tenets of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, rather than with those of their own Hnafi school. Thus, Hanafi scholars and jurists in the pre-Independence period gave a ruling, based on scholarly consensus, in regard to the dissolution of a Muslim woman's marriage whose husband has left her with no trace of his whereabouts.

In the early Islamic period, some rulers sought to bring about uniformity and homogenization in legal matters under the auspices of the state. However, they were dissuaded by eminent scholars and jurists from doing so. During the caliphate of Umar ibn Abd al Aziz, it was suggested that he should bring about uniformity and consensus in respect of legal rulings, to which he replied: "I would not have been very happy if Muslim scholars had not had any differences in legal matters. The companions of the Prophet had certain differences in legal matters. Therefore, any one who follows the precepts of any of the companions is on the right path". He then circulated an order through the Islamic territories to the effect that the people of every region should abide by the ruling over which the local scholars and jurists had reached a consensus.

Once the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur told Imam Malik that he proposed to circulate copies of the Imam's books in every city and town, with the instruction that people should follow only these books. Imam Malik dissuaded the caliph from doing any thing of the kind. He told him that people in different cities were following the rulings of local scholars and jurists and that it was advisable to allow this situation to continue. Likewise, caliph Harun al-Rashid told Imam Malik that he wished to have the latter's celebrated work Al-Muwatta to be hung in the Ka'bah, so that the Muslim masses could follow it in a uniform manner. Imam Malik advised him not to do so.

More than one-third of Muslims across the world are living as minorities in non-Muslim countries. These Muslim minorities are faced with a number of problems and challenges. This situation has led some contemporary Muslim scholars and jurists to re-examine some of the principles enunciated in the classical works of Islamic jurisprudence. They argue that there is a need to rethink some of the important issues in Islamic jurisprudence, including the traditional dichotomy between the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of War (Dar al-Harb), the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in plural and multicultural societies, the participation of Muslims in secular politics, coping with the pressures and challenges of secularization, and the constraints on Islamic family laws and on the maintenance of Islamic identity. In 1994, the North American Fiqh Council announced a project to develop a distinctive body of jurisprudence for Muslims living in non-Muslim countries. Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani, chairman of the Council, has used the term Jurisprudence of the Minorities (Fiqh al-Aqalliyyah) and has argued that this constitutes an autonomous body of jurisprudence based on the principle of the relevance of Islamic laws to the conditions and circumstances peculiar to a particular community. He also argues that the traditional categories of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb are no longer relevant in the contemporary context. The eminent Egyptian scholar Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi has carried the argument further in his books Fiqh al Aqalliyyah al-Muslimin (in Arabic) and Fiqh of Muslim Minorities (in English).

Non-Muslims in the Islamic state

The attitude and behaviour of Prophet Muhammad towards the beliefs and traditions of the followers of other religions exhibited exemplary tolerance, understanding and magnanimity. He allowed a delegation of polytheists and idolators from Taif to stay in his mosque at Madina. Some Christians from Najran, who visited the Prophet, sought his permission to say their prayers in the mosque, which was granted. When he set up a city-state at Madina, he drew up its constitution, which was committed to writing at his instance. This constitution included two significant passages: first, Muslims and Jews will be entitled to the preservation and protection of their respective religious traditions; secondly, Muslims and Jews will together constitute a (political) community. This covenant was extended, at a later date, to the Christians of Najran and the pagan Arabs. Thus the Pax Islamica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and the pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy. In fact, the Islamic state assumed responsibility for the maintenance and even defence of Jewish, Christian and pagan identities. Thus the city-state of Madina provided the first model of democratic pluralism. The charter of rights and assurances issued to the Christian population of Najran by the Prophet included the following passage:

    An assurance is hereby extended, on behalf of God and the Prophet, to the people of Najran, that their lives, religion, lands and wealth will be protected. No change in their existing conditions will be effected. Their rights will not be violated. Their commercial caravans and delegations will be protected. No cardinal will be dismissed from his position, nor will an ascetic be denied the right to his way of life. The custodians of churches will face no interference in respect of their functions.

The protection of minority rights under the Islamic dispensation has no parallel in the annals of history. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the Dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). He is reported to have said: "Whosoever oppresses any Dhimmi, I shall be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgement". He issued strict instructions to the effect that, in the event of a war, women, children and religious functionaries belonging to other religions should not be harmed.

This attitude of tolerance and sympathy was continued by the four caliphs and the companions. It is remarkable that the occupation of Syria by the Muslim army during the caliphate of Abu Bakr met with no resistance from the local Christian population who welcomed the Muslim soldiers who, in their eyes, liberated them from the oppression of their own coreligionists. When Khalid ibn Walid made a treaty with the Christian population after the conquest of Hira during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, he gave a written assurance to them that their churches would not be destroyed or desecrated by Muslims and that they would not be prevented from ringing their bells or from carrying crosses in their religious processions. During the caliphate of Umar, some Muslims usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jew and constructed a mosque on the site. When the Caliph got to know about it he ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew. Caliph Umar used to consult non-Muslims in military and administrative matters. During the caliphate of Ali, the Muslim-occupied territories of the Byzantine Empire faced internal strife. Emperor Constantine II sent a secret message to the Christian population in the Islamic state, urging them to rise in revolt against Islamic rule and assuring them of his military support. The Christians, however, spurned the offer, saying: 'These enemies of our religion are preferable to you".

Islam does not favour the forced assimilation or conversion of non-Muslims (Qur'an 2:256; 109:6). The Islamic state guaranteed not only the protection of the lives and honour of the Dhimmis but also of their religious beliefs and rituals, personal laws and endowments. When Amr ibn al-A's, a distinguished companion of the Prophet, conquered Egypt in 640 AD, he left the Christian population in undisturbed possession of their churches and guaranteed to them independence and autonomy in all ecclesiastical matters. He allowed the properties and endowments attached to Christian churches to remain with their traditional custodians. In Egypt, a Muslim soldier damaged the eye of an idol. The idol-worshipper complained to the governor Amir ibn al A's, who decreed that the idol-worshipper had a right to damage the soldier's eye. Astounded by this judgement, he forgave the soldier in lieu of monetary compensation.

Some Christians from Najran in Yaman declined to accept Islam but agreed to live under Islamic rule on condition that they would have the freedom to retain and manage their churches and to appoint their own priests. They requested the Prophet to appoint a Muslim judge to arbitrate in their disputes. He deputed Abu Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah. He carried out the administration of justice in such an efficient and impartial manner that many Christians embraced Islam.

Once Caliph Ali lost his armour. A few days later he saw a Jew selling the same armour in the local bazaar. He accosted the Jew and told him that the armour belonged to him. The Jew refused to accept his claim and insisted that he was the rightful owner of the armour. Ali took up the matter with the local magistrate Qadi Shurayh. The Qadi asked for witnesses in support of his claim. Ali produced two witnesses, his son Hasan and his freed slave Qanbar. Qadi Shurayh told Caliph Ali that a son's testimony in support of his father's claim was not admissible in law and decreed that the Jew be allowed to retain the armour. Amazed and deeply touched by this exceptional display of justice, the Jew admitted that the armour indeed belonged to Caliph Ali and embraced Islam.

After the conquest of Jerusalem, Caliph Umar gave the following assurance, in writing, to the Christian population of the town: "This is the assurance which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He grants to all security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be converted into dwelling places, nor destroyed, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in the mater of their faith."

Under the Islamic dispensation, non-Muslims were entitled to preserve and maintain their places of worship and to construct new ones. In some cases, the expenses for the maintenance and repair of their places of worship were met from the state treasury. Similarly, the salaries of Jewish rabbis and Christian priests were often paid from the state treasury. Non-Muslims who had no source of income received stipends from the state treasury. During the caliphate of Uthman, Jeserjah, the bishop of Merv, wrote a letter to the Patriarch of Persia, saying that the Arabs, whom God has given dominion over the world, do not attack Christianity. On the contrary, they help our religion, respect our priests and shrines, and offer donations to our churches and monasteries.

Non-Muslims living in the Islamic state are entitled to certain rights and privileges which are not available to Muslims. For example, they are allowed to take and give interest, which is forbidden to Muslims. All Muslims are obliged to take part in a war in the event of an external aggression, which is not binding on non-Muslims. In lieu of this exemption, they are required to pay the Jizya. The Jizya levy is not an invention of Muslims. It existed in Iran and in the Byzantine Empire where people who were exempted from military service were required to pay a certain tax in lieu of the exemption. In the battle of Yarmuk, when Muslims were unable to defend the non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state, they returned to them the whole amount of Jizya. During the time of the Prophet, the quantum of Jizya was about ten Dirham in a year, which amounted to the expenses of an average family for ten days. The amount of Jizya differed according to the economic status of a person. Women, old and destitute persons, slaves, physically disabled people and children were exempted from the payment of Jizya.

Following the Islamic conquest, the system of administration remained unchanged and the non-Muslim personnel associated with matters of administration were retained. By and large, the Islamic state did not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims in respect of employment or appointment to high positions. Caliph Muawiyah's finance minister Surjun ibn Mansur as well as his personal physician were Christian. A number of Dhimmis were appointed to high positions during Umawid and Abbasid periods.

In some cases, when the religious rights of non-Muslims were violated by a ruler, the Ulama and the Qadis took the initiative in rectifying the situation. During the caliphate of al-Hadi in the second century AH, Ali ibn Sulayman was the governor of Egypt. For unknown reasons, he ordered the demolition of some Christian churches. When Musa ibn Isa succeeded him, he approached the Ulama in this matter. Layth ibn Sa'ad, who was the doyen of the Ulama of his time, decreed that all the demolished churches should be reconstructed at state expense. The governor readily complied with this decree. The grand mosque of Damascus had a church in its vicinity. The caliph Muawiyah requested the Christian community to forego their right over the church in lieu of some compensation so that the church premises could be included in the mosque. The Christians refused. However, the caliph did not press the matter.

Islamic law guarantees religious and cultural protection not only to Jews and Christians but also to Zoroastrians, Sabaeans and worshippers of idols. After the conquest of Persia, the fire temples of Zoroastrians were left untouched by Muslims. In the tenth century, three centuries after the Islamic conquest of Persia, fire temples were to be found in every province of Persia. Following the conquest of Sind, Muhamamd ibn Qasim gave a written assurance to the local Hindu population to the effect that their temples would not be harmed or destroyed. Daibul had a majestic Buddhist temple perched on a hillock. Multan had a magnificent Hindu temple. All such places of worship were left untouched by Muhammad ibn Qasim.

Following the end of the period of the four caliphs, Muslim rulers occasionally deviated from the principles of governance as laid down in the Islamic Shariah. Nevertheless, the state and society set up by the Prophet and consolidated by the caliphs and the Companions continued to serve as a beacon of inspiration and guidance for successive generations of Muslims. By and large, Muslim rulers and governments exhibited remarkable tolerance and magnanimity towards non-Muslims living in the Islamic state. Since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Christians had prohibited Jews from entering or living in the city. It was only after the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem that Jews came to live in the city.

When Muslims conquered Spain, they left Christians in the exercise of their religion. They allowed them to be tried by their own judges in accordance with their own religious laws. The ritual of the mass was observed with all solemnity, the psalms were chanted in the choir, and the church festivals were celebrated with customary enthusiasm. When the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, they proclaimed themselves the protectors of the Greek Church. The control of spiritual and ecclesiastical matters was left entirely to the Christian clergy, with no interference from the state. When Jews were evicted from Spain 1492, they took shelter in Muslim lands. In Turkey, they were welcomed by the Muslim mayor of Istanbul. It is significant to note that Jewish communities who speak Ladino (a Judaeo-Spanish dialect) survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman empire. Under Ottoman rule, the cherished principle of tolerance was institutionalised through the Millet system where administrative control was exercised through legally constituted religious communities, notably the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians and the Rabbanite Jews. The state did not demand conversion or cultural conformity from the ethnic and religious minorities.

There were instances when some places of worship belonging to non-Muslims were desecrated or destroyed by over-zealous Muslim soldiers or some members of the public. However, they were restrained and chastised by the Ulama and Muslim rulers because such acts were considered contrary to Islamic teachings. During the reign of al-Mutasim (833-842AD), a Muslim general ordered the Imam of a mosque to be flogged because he was responsible for the destruction of a fire temple and the construction of a mosque in its place. Caliph al-Muqtadir (908-932AD) gave orders for the reconstruction of some churches at Ramallah in Palestine, which had been destroyed by Muslims during a riot.

Ethnicity in Islamic perspective

Ethnicity, which is an important aspect of the contemporary discourse of pluralism, refers to the positive consciousness of belonging to a group. Factors such as religion, culture, language and a sense of shared identity constitute the key components and markers of ethnicity. Undoubtedly, ethnicity plays an important role in fostering social solidarity and cohesiveness and in providing a sense of belonging and rootedness to the individual. In actual fact, ethnicity is a Janus-faced phenomenon in the sense that it has both benign as well as negative implications and consequences. In the Hadith literature, the negative and socially disruptive implications and consequences of ethnicity are described as Asabiyyah or ethnocentrism. The Prophet defined Asabiyyah as helping one's own people in a manner that is morally wrong. He said: "He who invites people to Asabiyyah is not one of us; he who fights for it is not one of us; he who dies for the sake of it is not one of us." One day a scuffle took place between a Migrant (Muhajir) and a Helper (Ansari). Both called out to their respective groups for help. When the Prophet heard about this incident, he expressed displeasure over it and remarked: "Why do you raise slogans like those of the age of ignorance (Jahiliyyah)? Give them up; they stink." A companion asked the Prophet whether loving one's own people was also a part of Asabiyyah, to which he replied in the negative and added: "Asabiyyah is helping one's community in matters of injustice and oppression."

The renowned philosopher and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (d.1406), in his celebrated work Muqaddimah, has dwelt at considerable length on the social significance and functions of Asabiyyah and on its bearing on political processes, especially on the establishment of political power. However, while he takes a largely instrumentalist view of ethnicity, he fails to take cognisance of the negative and dysfunctional implications and consequences of Asabiyyah.

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