Saturday, March 29

Islam and Pluralism

Back in secondary school it wasn't uncommon for those students who were religiously aware to have some pretty deep conversations with like-minded teachers on all topics from current affairs to religious theory. I'm even reminded of a time when the deputy head used my practise of Islam to reprimand me for some action that I don't quite remember the details of: "doesn't your religion teach you better than this?" and the like.

Another example is of the same deputy head declaring that, although she was a Christian, she believed that anyone who performs good deeds during their time on earth would go to heaven. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and mature enough to politely nod while keeping my amusement to myself.

I didn't have a problem with the belief itself - it was a time of irreligiousness and secularity where absolute good existed out of the hands of God, and we were taught to be moral without scripture. Many people were being good for the sake of it, and not just because a priest offered them heaven in return.

It did however go against everything I had considered to be at the core of both Islam and Christianity at that time. From what I understood, mainstream Islam put the exact specification of belief, things like tawheed and taqwa, at its centre; things without which you could never have any religious worth (be that of an Islamic or Christian nature). Being young, I had accepted this as fact although looking back I did have some questions; despite my amusement what my teacher said did sound reasonable after all.

Fifteen years (or half a life) later and I'm still wondering what makes a Muslim a Muslim. Is it the following of a particular set of guidelines and commandments? Is it being universally good, regardless of the outcome or reason? Or is it defined backwards: so those who end up in heaven (intentionally or not) were implicitly Muslim anyway?

I guess what we're really looking for are some kind of minimum requirements, or spirit, distilled from the teachings of Islam. So we have things like a belief in a single God and a last day and absolute moral righteousness, but not necessarily specific practise like daily prayer or fasting. In this way we'd end up with an abstract notion of what a Muslim should be (where Muslim means "someone who pleases God and will go to heaven as a reward"), and suddenly everything becomes much more grey.

Some prominent commentators (including Yusuf Ali, Nurcholish Madjid and Muhammad Rashid Rida) even include religions traditionally considered absolutely polytheist (like the Vedic and some Buddhist teachings) in this abstract definition. Of course we have to be careful here: it's still unclear to me whether we can describe these as being "Islamically valid", that is something which is taken as being correct in the framework of the Quran and Sunnah.

But then consider how the vast majority of us Muslims don't exactly have a correct practise either - do we have no hope either? A part of the Islamic belief is that even deviants can find salvation provided they hold the minimum requirements and that it all lies in the hands of God anyway. If we agree that that is the case, then the implication is that other religions (particularly those seen as "historically" deviant) can as well.

In short, perhaps you may not necessarily have to be Muslim in order to have an Islamic Spirit? I'm reminded of the story of a non-Muslim woman who was granted heaven purely because she treated animals well (citation needed), an example of how one doesn't have to be classically Muslim in order to succeed.

Personally I'm not really totally convinced by all the above, that all practising and moralistic non-Muslims (in the classical sense) will definitely go to Heaven. But I do think that there's now room to say that they won't definitely be damned - a statement that's more accepting (rather than just merely tolerating) and open to other ways of life.

Whatever the exact technical situation is (and we probably won't find out the full answer till it's too late), discourse like the above does lay an (albeit cheesy) path for those of different faiths to live side by side with each other. I don't think there's anything weak or compromising about refusing to condemn others for being wrong, or even taking the stronger stance of thinking there's a possibility that we're all right. It certainly shouldn't detract from any strong faith to consider these possibilities.

Finally, I'm not saying we should accept the arbitrary beliefs of every single person or that absolutely anything goes, but more that the morals and good actions of a person should always count no matter where they might stem from. It's these actions that will serve the global community the best during its time here, rather than the incessant quibbling over details we won't find out till Afterwards anyway. For the missionaries among us I'm also not saying that there isn't a need for preaching or dawah - the above isn't an excuse to quit propagating ideas we genuinely think will put people in a much better position.

So there you have it: my take on pluralism in Islam. I think that it safeguards the basic tenets of the Islamic faith while opening the door for inclusion but, as always, there's still more questions to ask and be answered. Either way, IANAS.

Oh and for those of you with wild imaginations, no, I'm not trying to justify my secret non-Muslim girlfriend either. Tut.