Islamic Perspectives

The concept of tolerance in Islam

By Kamal Ahmad Khan

Tolerance means ‘’to bear.’’ As a concept, it refers to respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of cultures, forms of expression and ways of being human. In Arabic, it is called tasamuh. Words like hilm (forbearance) or ‘afw (forgiveness) or saf-h (overlooking) also convey the meaning of tolerance. In Persian and Urdu, we use the word rawadari which is derived from rawa meaning acceptable or bearable anddashtan meaning “to hold”. Thus it means to hold something acceptable or bearable.

Intolerance has become the culture of the day. It is causing death, genocide, violence, religious persecution as well as confrontations at different levels. Sometimes it is racial and ethnic, sometimes it is religious and ideological, and sometimes it is political and social. Whatever may be the reason, intolerance is painful in each situation. How can we solve the problem of intolerance? How can we bring tolerance in the world today? I have tried to discuss these issues from an Islamic point of view.

Tolerance is a basic principle of Islam. It is a religious and moral duty. It does not mean concession. It does not mean lack of principles, or lack of seriousness about one’s principles. Sometimes it is advocated that people are tolerant of things that they do not care about. But this is not the case in Islam. Tolerance, according to Islam, does not mean that we do not believe that Islam is the final edition of divine faith and is superior to other faiths and ideologies as such. It does not mean that we do not present the message of Islam to all Mankind.   The UNESCO principles on tolerance read as follows: “Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustices or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions. It means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.’’ The preamble of the Indian Constitution vows Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and opportunity; and calls for promoting among all Indians Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual.   Thus tolerance comes from our recognition of:   A.   The dignity of the human beings, B.   The basic equality of all human beings, C.   Universal human rights D.   Fundamental freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

The Qur’an speaks about the basic dignity of all human beings regardless of their race, colour, language or ethnicity. The Shari’ah recognizes the right to life, property, family honour and conscience of all people. From the very beginning, freedom of religion has been guaranteed by Islam. It prohibits coercion in matters of faith and belief. The Qur’an says: “There is no compulsion in religion.” In matters of religion coercion is not permitted and by implication it is accepted that in matters like culture and other worldly practices also the use of force and undue influence is prohibited. In Surah al-Shura, Allah says to the Prophet (pbuh): ‘’If they turn away, we have not sent you as a guard over them. Your duty is but to convey (the message).’’ In Sura al-Nahl, Allah further reveals to the Prophet (pbuh) the method to be followed while preaching the Message of Allah: “Invite [all] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful graciousness. Your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.’’

Allah further addressing Mankind saids: “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and beware [of evil]: if you do turn back, know then that, it is our Messenger’s duty to proclaim [the message] in the clearest manner.”

The Holy Qur’an further says addressing the Prophet (pbuh): ‘’Say: ‘Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger: but if you turn away, he is only responsible for the duty placed on him and you for that placed on you. If you obey Him, you shall be on right guidance. The Messenger’s duty is only to preach the clear [message].’’

Thus we see that the verses mentioned above give an injunction not to coerce people, present the message to them in a decent and clear way, invite them to the truth and do your best in presenting and conveying the message of Allah to humanity, while it is totally up to them to accept or to reject it. Allah revealed to the Prophet (pbuh): “And say, ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whosoever wants let him believe and whosoever wants let him deny.”

Here the question arises: if Allah gives us the choice to believe or not to believe and prohibits the Prophet (pbuh) not to use force or coercion against non-believers, why did He punish the people of Prophet Nuh, the Thmud, the Lut and the people of Prophet Shu’aib and the Pharaoh and his followers? The answer is found in the Qur’an itself. Those people were not punished simply because of their disbelief but because of their oppression of the righteous and because they stopped others to come to the way of Allah. Ibn Taymiyah, the great scholar, opined: “States may live long inspite of their people’s disbelief (kufr), but they cannot live long when their people become oppressors.’’

Islam permits coercion and use of force only against those who fight Islam and Muslims. Allah says, ‘’Fight in the cause of Allah those who attack you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors.’’ The purpose of jihad is not to convert people to Islam. The Qur’an says, ‘’La ikraha fi al-din” which means that there is no compulsion in religion. The real purpose of jihad is to remove injustice, oppression and stop aggression. Muslims are allowed to keep good relations with non-Muslims. The Qur’an says, ‘’Allah does not forbid you that you show kindness and deal justly with those who did not fight you in your religion and did not drive you out from your homes.”

Islam may tolerate anything but it teaches zero tolerance for injustice, oppression and violation of the rights of other human beings. Allah says, “And why should you not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors, and raise for us from your side one who will protect, and raise for us from your side one who will help.”

Islam teaches tolerance at all levels: between family members, between husband and wife, between parent and child, between groups and nations. The Qur’an says, ‘’O Mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you might [affectionately] come to know one another. Surely, the most honoured among you, in the sight of Allah, is the one who is the best in conduct.’’ The best conduct in Islam is to treat human beings with dignity, equality, fraternity and justice.

Thus tolerance is the need of the hour today as it was yesterday. We must emphasise the need for this virtue among us and in the world. We must foster tolerance through deliberate policies and efforts. Our focus should be multiethnic. We should teach our children respect of each other irrespective of caste, creed, gender, nationality and ethnicity. Tolerance is the cordial knot which binds the family, society and keep the nation intact. Disrespect gives rise to persons like Vibhishan who may change the course of a nation. We should inculcate in our children the quality of tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness because the family is the first school of citizenship. A child learns the lesson of life in the manner it suckles in the lap of its mother. This always affects its mind, behaviour and culture. Only a healthy and cultured family can make a healthy and cultured nation which is necessary to establish peace, prosperity and security in the world which is the object of the UN. Society cannot be governed by law alone. Law has a relation with society. It suffers if society is rigid and intolerant.

Dr. Kamal Ahmad Khan teaches in the Faculty of Law, University of Lucknow