It is unfortunate to be accused of intolerance and violence. Nevertheless, this can be an opportunity for self-reflection. In what ways could the accusation be true? And how can one redeem oneself from it? The answer lies in a fine distinction between a truth and the only truth. Anything in the form of knowledge is not under the monopoly of any one individual or community.
The Muslim Stigma
One of the regrets of most Muslims today is how their faith is often associated with terrorism, especially in the western media. It is as though one should feel guilty and embarrassed for being a Muslim. Emphasising that Islam is a religion of peace and love is clear evidence for this trend. It is also common for apologetics to point out Islam is not the same as Muslims; that the performance of those who identify themselves as Muslims does not represent Islam. While this may sound like a subtle distinction, it is not an intelligent answer, but a clear fallacy. Even those who claim it do not observe it when it comes to other schools and traditions. When a school offers a way of life, it is logical to assess it by how it unfolds in real life. This is how public policy is evaluated. For instance, communism is appraised by how it manifested in the states which adopted it as an ideology. Similarly, capitalism is critiqued based on the performance of capitalist societies. And saying that a system was never implemented as it is does not exonerate it, but only undermines its position. If it is so abstract and idealistic that it cannot be practiced, then it is not a way of life. Besides, the realm of theory is more clear-cut than the practical implementation of that theory; that is true about all schools and systems. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to evaluate a neat theory by how it succeeds in an imperfect world. As we read in the Bible:
For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. (1) Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? Either a vine, figs? So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. (2)
The current predicament calls forth a self-examination, both at the individual level and the collective. Muslims have the opportunity, and the obligation, to pause for a moment and explore within themselves for seeds of intolerance. Could it be true that Islam is a religion of violence and terrorism? Could it be true that this is not about a few bad apples at the extreme who have non-conventional interpretations of the Quran, but is applicable to mainstream Muslims?
Roots of Intolerance
If we analyze the mode of intolerance toward others, we can identify two traits at the core of the issue: exclusiveness and self-sufficiency. Exclusiveness refers to the belief that the truth is to be found in a certain place exclusively. Self-sufficiency means feeling needless of what other sources have to offer. The two often coincide in practice, although they do not have to theoretically. It helps here to conduct a hypothetical survey on ourselves and others. Imagine being presented with a set of true and false questions such as:
|Islam is the ultimate truth.||T||F|
|All guidance for humankind is in the Quran.||T||F|
|The good of this world and the next is to be found in the Quran and the Sunnah.||T||F|
|The problem of Muslims is that they have forsaken the Quran and the Sunnah.||T||F|
|The Muslim’s solution is to go back to the pristine teachings of the Quran.||T||F|
In case you have not noticed, the above statements are interchangeable. They are different ways of expressing the same thing: absolutism. What is your initial response to these statements? How would your Muslim friends and relatives fill it? How do you think the common Muslim would answer?
The absolutist view holds one tradition to be the ultimate truth eternally and universally. Ultimate truth means the highest (or the only) message of guidance. Eternal and universal mean that it is applicable to all people: everywhere, under all circumstances, in all times.
The problems with exclusiveness and self-sufficiency is that they tend to close one down and restrict one’s perspective. If one feels that all truth is to be found in one’s home; if one thinks that others have nothing to offer which one lacks; then the seeds of intolerance have already begun to sprout. It is then only a matter of extending this vector further – in the same direction – to reach a point where one does not give others the right to speak, to practice their religion, and maybe even to breathe.
What makes this even more limiting is that we are never dealing with Islam or the Quran, but we always have a specific interpretation and understanding of them. The implausibility of such rigid exclusiveness should be self-evident. Truth and guidance are too vast to be contained in any one school or interpretation. In this regard, it is insightful to reflect on the following statement by Max Muller, as he explains the inherent paradox in any claim of infallibility for anyone:
If we have once claimed the freedom of the spirit which St. Paul claimed, ‘to prove all things and to hold fast that which is good,’ we cannot turn back, we cannot say that no one shall prove our own religion, no one shall prove other religions and compare them with our own. We have to choose once for all between freedom and slavery of judgment… In claiming infallibility for Bible, Popes, or Councils, they claim in reality far greater infallibility for themselves in declaring by their own authority Bible, Popes, or Councils to be infallible. (3)
Proclaiming the Quran as universal guidance and eternal truth may show the strength of one’s conviction, but that is only at the surface. In reality, it shows one’s ignorance and irresponsibility, which, by the way, are against the message of the Quran itself. One can conclude an exclusivist view of any tradition only if they have not studied the other traditions.
Key Distinction: Relative vs. per se
Does the above mean that a Muslim should not believe in the truth of Islam just in order to avoid the risk of intolerance? No. There is no problem in holding one’s school to be true. The problem is in holding a school to be the only truth, the highest truth, the eternal truth, or the absolute truth. There is a fundamental difference between these two views.
There are certain statements which entail a stance about something other than the subject of that statement. These are relative statements, and they require the speaker to ascertain not only the subject of their speech but also other subjects which are indirectly implied by the statement.
When one says, ‘The Quran is a source of guidance,’ the person must have realised the guidance of the Quran. This statement is about the Quran per se. It does not affirm nor deny other sources of guidance. But if one says, ‘The Quran is the only source of guidance’ or ‘It is the highest source of guidance’ then they must have investigated all other possible sources of guidance and have compared them with the Quran’s. Otherwise they are not qualified to make such a statement.
A Muslim who has genuinely experienced the truth and guidance of Islam is entitled to hold that ‘I have found guidance in Islam.’ But holding that ‘My guidance is only in Islam’ or that ‘Everyone’s guidance lies in Islam’ would be irresponsible. For practical purposes and due to lack of resources, one may choose not to study the other traditions and focus on one’s own, but then the person should not make any relative statements either.
Who is (not) a Salafi?
Salafis promote the understanding and practice of the Prophet’s companions (al-ṣaḥābah) and their followers (al-tābiʿīn) as a standard for genuine Islam. Sometimes they call them ‘the righteous early Muslims (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ)’. It is as though they had it right, but then the Muslims deviated from their custom and thus lost their dominance in the world. Within the Muslim world, there is much objection to the Salafis. However, when one feels resentful of another person or sect, it is extremely helpful to reflect on oneself: could it be that I also suffer from the same or a similar flaw? Any resentment is an opportunity for introspection.
If Salafism is a disorder, then the survey above would demonstrate that almost all Muslims are infected by the ‘Salafi virus’. This is rooted in a sense of self-sufficiency which is prevalent among all sects of Muslims. They share in having an exclusivist and absolutist view of religious truth, despite having diverse understandings of what that truth is. It is the same logic, only applied to slightly different object. As long as one deems the truth to be entirely – or even predominantly – contained in one place, the virus is present and active.
For exactly the same reason, even Shia Muslims – who often consider themselves at direct odds with Salafis – are not exempt from this. They would at most add a few more sources as infallible guides, but they are equally exclusivist and self-sufficient. There is no fundamental difference between saying, ‘The Quran is sufficient for us,’ ‘The Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah are sufficient for us,’ or ‘The Quran, the Prophet’s Sunnah, and the Imams are sufficient for us.’
From Infancy to Maturity
Islam is the youngest of the great religions of the world. It is six centuries younger than Christianity, and much more than that compared to its other siblings. A common thread in the historical evolution of all great religions is how they grow from infancy to maturity. The stage of infancy is characterised by self-preservation through rejecting and repelling the competitors. Beyond a certain point, however, these rigid walls tend to stifle the tradition due to lack of dynamism. In order to thrive, the followers of that religion tend to gradually drop their guards and start interacting with the other traditions as a source of nourishment. This process of opening up to other sources marks the stage of maturity.
Islam – as embodied and practiced by Muslims – is yet to make this transition. And it only makes sense to find more rigidity and exclusiveness in Islam given its relative youth compared to the other religions. The other religions which may seem so peaceful and universalist today were not so when they were as young as Islam. Not to mention that even they have more room to improve and open up. The point to emphasise here is that religious doctrines have a tendency by nature to close one down. The followers of all traditions must always remind themselves of this risk, lest they fall in a tight rut.
If the followers of other traditions find fault with Muslims, it is like an older sibling blaming a younger one for wetting their bed. That is not something to be proud of, but it is a natural part of the maturation process. Moreover, while religious fundamentalism is a sign of immaturity, hostile reaction through insulting the sacred elements of a religion is equally immature. Both theism and atheism can be vehicles for intolerance.
The above distinction – between infancy and maturity – should also explain the exclusivist statements in the Quran and the Sunnah. It is true that the apparent texts of these scriptures claim to offer the highest truth for all humankind. However, one should bear in mind that these statements were made at the onset of Islam, when it yet had to be established. The seemingly exclusivist verses and narrations make sense in their historical context, but they should not be viewed as pertaining to all stages of religious development, both at the individual level and as a socio-historical trend.
How to Open Up?
The first step is to realise the crucial and subtle difference between relative statements and statements per se. One should survey one’s beliefs about one’s religion and see if they imply taking a position about anything else that one is ignorant of. Growing out of a tight state of infancy to a more accommodating, universal and mature understanding of religion takes time and effort. Nevertheless, this is the direction that all religious traditions have pointed toward, and a very fulfilling experience. For those willing to make the sacrifice, they must first learn their own tradition. Although guidance and wisdom are to be found elsewhere, one is primarily responsible for investigating the resources that were given to them first.
However, even one’s understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah can be remarkably enriched by studying the other traditions. One cannot fully comprehend a building if one is too close to it. Instead, one has to cross the street and observe the building from a distance in order to better appreciate its dimensions. For a seeker of truth and guidance, a vital criterion to maintain when studying any source is to approach it as a student, with a thirst to absorb. One should have the same intention as when approaching one’s own scripture. Otherwise, if one has already made up one’s mind that there is nothing significant to be found in a source, that blinds one’s eyes and seals one’s heart. ‘You get out of something what you put into it.’
For those interested in religious guidance, they must have a plan to study all scriptures of the world religions. For Muslims in particular, the Bible takes precedence since it is cited and approved in the Quran. And for those who are seeking the truth in general, they must also study the non-religious literature. If Islam means submission to the truth, then a Muslim should not hesitate to accept the truth from anyone, even from a militant atheist. The result of such open-minded approach to knowledge is a deep realisation that no one has a monopoly over the truth, guidance and wisdom. Rather, one will be amazed to find how diverse the manifestations of knowledge are, and how it is fairly distributed among the people of all regions, religions and times. In the past two centuries, there have been some profound insights into human existence and behaviour by secular thinkers. Learning their teachings is indispensable to anyone who wishes to grow up.
Moreover, there is no reason to assume that any one interpretation of religion – whether ancient or recent – is the ultimate truth. Given its non-material nature, human knowledge is always growing in depth and extent. Religious knowledge is not an exception to this. One’s understanding of religious teachings can deepen and enhance, only if the person does not fixate on any one source of interpretation. The only authority for a seeker of truth is truth itself, not any individual, school or sect. There is no contradiction between being a believer and being dynamic.
- Luke 6:43-44
- James 3:12
- Max Muller, Anthropological Religion, Lecture I, p. 4