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Celebrating pluralism and dialogue: qur'anic perspectives.

Dialogue, particularly interfaith dialogue, and respect for pluralism have never been as critically important as they are at the present time in the United States, in the post-September 11 milieu. Some members of certain religious groups have engaged in incendiary remarks about others, prompted by misconceptions and fear of the others' belief systems and the behavior they supposedly engender. Dispelling strongly entrenched stereotypes about religious communities is, admittedly, not an easy task, but it remains essential in our current fraught political climate. The biblical counsel "Love your neighbor as yourself' is echoed in the Qur'an's exhortation to humankind to come to know one another, as this essay will be discussing. Love and knowledge of one another are inextricably intertwined, as scripture suggests, and point the way to arrive at a better mutual understanding and promotion of peaceful coexistence among diverse peoples.

I will focus on three qur'anic concepts from which universal ethical principles may be derived to promote harmonious relationships among diverse peoples and faith communities in full recognition, even in celebration, of our differences: (1) the knowledge of one another (al-ta 'aruf), based on respect for diversity and difference; (2) the commonality of human beings, based on righteousness and ethical conduct rather than on religious labels and denominations; and (3) the reconciliation of hearts (ta 'lif al-qulub), which is a cornerstone of Islamic peace-building. These concepts and their bearing on interfaith dialogue and coexistence are discussed in greater detail in the three sections that follow.

I. Knowledge of One Another

The concept of al-ta'aruf or "knowledge of one another" derives from Qur'an 49:13, which states: "O humankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in God's sight is the one who is most righteous." (1) The medieval Muslim exegete Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Yabari (d. 923) explains this verse as emphasizing that we may distinguish between human beings only on the basis of piety, not on the basis of lineage and descent. He quotes a hadith, or a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, in this context in which he relates that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve. "Indeed," the Prophet asserts, "God will not question you regarding your pedigree and tribal affiliation on the Day of Judgment, for only the most righteous is the noblest before God." (2)

Another well-known medieval exegete, Isma'il ibn Kathir (d. 1353), cites the following hadith in exegesis of this verse, "The Muslims [al-muslimun] are brothers. No one among them has any superiority over another, except on the basis of piety/godliness [taqwa]." (3) Here Ibn Kathir apparently understands the term "al-muslimun" in its general confessional sense and thus restricts the notion of the equality of believers as applying to Muslims alone. This is in contrast to the hadith above cited by al-Yabari, which clearly propounds the equality of all human beings, recognizing distinction among them only on the basis of personal righteousness. But, it would also be possible for us to translate "al-muslimun" as occurs in the hadith cited by Ibn Kathir in its basic sense of "those who submit [to God]," thus extending the purview of this hadith to include all believers who are united by their common faith in God and differentiated only on the basis of their piety. This inclusive understanding is more in accordance with the predominantly nonconfessional qur'anic usage of this term, as in Qur'an 3:67, 3:84, 5:44, etc. (4)

In our contemporary period, the significance of Qur'an 49:13 lies precisely in the fact that it offers us a clear scriptural mandate for embracing the existing diversity among peoples and to respect the pluralism in beliefs that we encounter, something we increasingly perceive the need to do. The verse transparently exhorts the believer to accept differences in national and ethnic origins as divinely ordained and to be concerned only with the larger, common issues of morality and ethics. A related verse, Qur'an 5:48, further underscores this notion:
 For every one of you We have appointed a law and way of life. And
 if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single
 community, but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by
 means of what He has given you. So hasten to do good works! To God
 you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all
 that on which you were inclined to differ.

These two verses (49:13 and 5:48) are crucial proof-texts that are invoked particularly by modernist and liberal Muslims today to indicate divine sanction of religious pluralism. Many classical as well as modern commentators on the Qur'an have taken serious note of these verses, commenting on how this affects the relationship of Muslims to practitioners of other faiths. (5) Possibly the most significant part of this verse is the statement, "For every one of you We have appointed a law and way of life." Every community--religious or religiocultural--is thus regarded as having its own law and its own way of life and as being capable of attaining spiritual growth in keeping with this law and way of life. According to the qur'anic view of prophecy, various prophets were sent over time to different communities to give them specific laws and to indicate a way of life to their people in keeping with their genius and in a manner that would ensure their spiritual and societal development. This is further emphasized in the next part of verse 5:48, which states, "And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community." It would not be difficult for God, after all, to fashion a single community out of humankind, but the qur'anic view is that pluralism is a divinely mandated feature that adds richness and variety to human existence. Each community's laws or way of life should be such as to ensure growth and the enrichment of life, without causing harm to others. Beyond this proviso, a wide variety of local customs and cultural variations has traditionally been tolerated in many Islamic societies through time.

The last part of this qur'anic verse states that everyone will return to God and that it is God who "will make you truly understand all that on which you were accustomed to differ." A parallel verse (6:108) drives home this message more forcefully. It states, "Do not revile those [idols] they call upon beside God in case they revile God out of hostility." Both verses stress that it is not for human beings to pronounce on the rectitude of religious doctrines, since that leads to dissension and strife in this world. The Prophet Muhammad himself is clearly warned that it is not among his duties to chastise people for their beliefs that are contrary to Islam, including idolatry, which represents the polar opposite of cherished Islamic tenets of monotheism and iconoclasm. Denigrating someone's deeply held religious beliefs is very likely to invite a retaliatory response, as Qur'an 6:108 points out. The initial act of denigration is one of supreme ungraciousness that has no place in qur'anic ethics or, increasingly, in global ethics today. (6) Humans should be concerned only with the performance of good deeds and should refrain from pronouncing on the salvific nature of others' religious affiliations. This is a powerful qur'anic principle that is in perfect accord with the spirit of our own pluralist age.

Historically, this qur'anic principle found reflection in the principle of irja', which evolved in roughly the eighth century C.E. in the Muslim world. The root of the Arabic term "irja" connotes both "hope" and "deferment." Because of a number of doctrinal schisms that developed in the early period, some Muslim theologians wisely saw immense virtue in postponing or deferring to God any definitive judgment on the correctness of a particular dogma that was not explicitly referred to in the Qur'an or hadith. This principle was specifically formulated in contradistinction to the notion of "takfir" (accusation of unbelief), resorted to by the seventh-century schismatic group, the Khawarij. The Khawarij had mutinied against 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph, when the latter agreed to human arbitration to resolve the dispute between him and Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, over issues of leadership. The Khawarij (literally, "the seceders") claimed that arbitration was the prerogative of God alone and that human arbitration was unwarranted in this case. Their slogan was "Judgment/arbitration belongs to God alone" (La hukma illa lillah; cf. Qur'an 12:67), which they appear to have understood to mean that an issue as momentous as political leadership could be determined only by direct divine intercession (though it is unclear what form they might have expected this to take). The Khawarij considered those Muslims who disagreed with them (the overwhelming majority) to have lapsed from the faith and thus to be fought against until they capitulated--a chilling harbinger of today's minoritarian extremist views.

In contrast to the divisive doctrine of takfir, the principle of irja' stated that any Muslim who proclaimed his or her belief in the one God and the prophetic mission of Muhammad (that is, who affirmed the basic creedal statement of Islam) remained a Muslim, regardless of the commission of even gravely sinful actions, thereby holding out the hope and promise of moral rehabilitation in this world and of forgiveness in the next. A sinning Muslim was liable for punishment for criminal wrongdoing but could not be labeled an unbeliever by coreligionists. Those who subscribed to such views were known as the Murji'a. (7)

The specific qur'anic proof-text (9:106) invoked to sanction this position (and from which the Murji'a get their name) is as follows: "There are those who are deferred [murjawna] to God's commandment--and He may chastise them or turn toward them [that is, in mercy]." The verse was interpreted by the Murji'a and those inclined to agree with them to refer to God's exclusive prerogative in judging human faith and conduct in the hereafter and to restrict human interventionist judgment in this regard. This liberal attitude was key in shaping the doctrinal positions of the majoritarian Sunni Muslim community. Its full appellation--ahl al-sunna wa-'l-jama 'a [the people of prophetic custom (that is, those who follow the practices of Muhammad) and communal unity]--underscores its basic accommodationist outlook, which strove to contain dissension in order to preserve the unity of the Muslim community.

Modernist Muslims have begun to reemphasize the qur'anic principle of human nonjudgment and noninterference in matters of faith, hoping to convince the skeptics among their co-religionists of a genuine regard for religious pluralism within Islam on the basis of these scriptural warrants. (8) Extremist Muslims today, however, have resurrected the doctrine of takfir and, like the seventh-century Khawarij, attempt to wield it as a powerful cudgel to browbeat other Muslims into adopting their Manichaean worldview.

The verses cited above and their exegeses thus remain of critical importance in our time as humanity engages in a "quest" for genuine understanding among individuals, faith communities, cultures, and nations. As part of this quest, traditions of tolerance within the Islamic heritage that historically have accommodated a diversity of perspectives and have helped to keep extremism at bay for lengthy periods clearly need to be brought to the forefront by Muslims today as they battle intolerance and illiberalism in their midst. Qur'an 49:13 goes beyond simple toleration of our diversity of background; it further advocates that one should proactively get to know one another (li-ta'arafu) so as to inspire in us affection for the other and to appreciate the diverse gifts and richness that we bring, in accordance with God's plan, to one another.

Because of the more parochial circumstances of their own time, medieval exegetes tended to gloss the verb "ta'arafu" to mean learning about each other's tribal and similar affiliational backgrounds in order to establish bonds of kinship and affection. In explanation of "ta'arafu," the exegete al-Tabari, for example, glosses it as commanding people to get to know one another so that they may discover their bonds of kinship. He warns that knowledge of such kinship is not meant to induce any sense of superiority but, rather, "to bring you closer to God, for indeed only the most pious among you is the most honorable." (9) Ibn Kathir, in his exegesis of this term, cites a hadith in which the Prophet states, "Learn about each other's pedigrees so as to establish your blood-ties, for it is such ties which lead to love among people." (10)

In our globalizing world, we can expand the exegetical purview of this verb to extend not just to our blood relatives but also to all the co-residents of the global village that we are now beginning to regard as our shared home, thus realizing more fully the pluralist potential of this verse. In our vastly expanded contemporary circumstances, Qur'an 49:13 may indeed be understood as goading us into learning about each other as inhabitants of different countries, cultures, and faith communities, so as to discover our ultimate commonalities as human beings. As with knowledge of the ties of blood kinship, knowledge of one another as fellow humans is also conducive to affection and good will among diverse peoples. This commonality is the focus of the next section.

II. The Commonality of Human Beings

The commonality of humans, based on righteousness and faith in God, is a belief that may be regarded as naturally proceeding out of the qur'anic regard for pluralism and diversity based on religion, ethnic background, etc., as briefly discussed above. The Qur'an asserts that all righteous believers will receive their reward from God, as in verse 2:62, which states unambiguously, "Those who believe, those who are Jews and Christians and Sabeans, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does right, surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve." Another verse (29:46) counsels Muslims to say to the People of the Book, as Jews and Christians are known, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; our God and your God is one, and it is to Him that we submit."

According to this qur'anic vision, believers are to come to the aid of one another, whether they be Christians, Jews, or Muslims, and they are to work with one another in enjoining what is right and preventing what is wrong, a basic moral and ethical principle in Islam. This joint venture is stressed clearly in verse (22:40) which declares, "If God had not restrained some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques where God's name is mentioned frequently would have been destroyed." The Qur'an's ecumenical call to action in defense of all houses of worship points the way for voices of faith from different traditions to mingle together in support of a moral and just world order, in which we all equally have a stake. This verse should remind certain Muslims today who practice exclusivism in the name of Islam that our fellowship, according to the Qur'an itself, extends not only to members of our own faith tradition but also to all believers of diverse faith communities.

The theme of the oneness of humankind is repeated several times in the Qur'an. We are told that all human beings have been "created of a single soul" (4:1) and that they are all descended from the same parents (49:13). At the same time, the Qur'an also recognizes and accepts the physical diversity of God's creation. This is not a contradiction; the Islamic worldview has often been described as based on diversity within unity, or "the integration of multiplicity into Unity." (11) Within the global community of human beings who are equal before the Divine Being, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences are embraced as part of God's mercy. These differences are also projected as signs or miracles of God. "And of His signs," the Qur'an says, "is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors. Surely there are signs in this for the learned" (30:22). Diversity in physical appearance, ethnic and cultural traits, etc., is thus to be respected and celebrated as a desired feature of the divine design.

In a significant qur'anic verse (2:117), we are given a definition of a truly righteous person that is revealing of the qualities of such an individual. This verse states:
 It is not righteousness (or virtue) that you turn your faces toward
 the East and the West, but righteousness belongs to the one who
 believes in God, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and
 the prophets, and who gives away wealth out of love for Him to the
 near of kin and to the orphans, to the needy, the traveler and to
 those who ask and in order to set slaves free. These are they who
 keep up prayer and pay the obligatory alms, who keep their promise
 when they make one, and are patient in distress and affliction and
 in times of conflict--these are they who fulfill their duty.

This verse supports the basic premise of religious pluralism by deemphasizing adherence to a particular creed or belief as a litmus test for righteousness. Rather, it stresses the importance of compassionate behavior, sensitivity to others' sufferings and needs, and one's own steadfastness in the face of calamities and afflictions. Only such persons are deemed truly righteous.

The Arabic word used in Qur'an 2:117 to refer to righteousness is "al-birr," and here it is equated with faith. In his exegesis of this verse, Ibn Kathir records a hadith in which the Prophet, when asked to define faith by one of his Companions, replied, "When you perform a good deed, your heart loves it, and when you perform a bad deed, your heart hates it." (12) According to this report, righteousness is predicated on its active manifestation in acts of charity toward others, which the believer's heart recognizes as intrinsically good. In other words, we may say that the properly formed conscience of the faithful allows them to recognize what is inherently right or bad and encourages them to enact or practice goodness. This is a nonsectarian approach to gauging the moral valence of actions. Of course, like any other faith tradition, Islam has its own truth-claims and requires of its adherents (as do other religions) allegiance to a core set of confessional/creedal principles. Beyond such core beliefs and at the level of deeds, we are able to move into the realm of recognized commonalities among many faith traditions, based on universal, shared notions of human dignity, charity, and justice, for example. Interfaith dialogue is premised on the discovery of such common ground among different religious groups and the formulation of a shared religious idiom.

Throughout time, Muslims of good will have understood these inclusive verses to sanction the coexistence of diverse peoples and nations. One may retrieve valuable examples from the early history of Muslims to document that this qur'anic ideal was often translated into reality. When the Prophet emigrated from Mecca to Medina (two cities in what is Saudi Arabia today), he found himself in a pluralist situation. There was religious as well as tribal diversity in Medina. He not only accepted this diversity but also legitimized it by drawing up an agreement with different religious and tribal groups and accorded them specific rights on the basis of this agreement. This agreement, the Pact or Constitution of Medina, represented the foundation of a revolutionary new political and religious culture. What is noteworthy in this agreement is that all together--Muslims of Quraysh from Mecca, Muslims of Medina belonging to various tribes, and the Jews of Medina belonging to different tribes--were understood to constitute a unified community (umma). Although Muslims would later arrogate the term "umma" to refer only to the Muslim community, it is noteworthy that the Qur'an uses this term not only in reference to the community of Muslims but also to the communities of Jews and Christians, and specifically to refer to the righteous contingent within distinctive religious communities. Thus, righteous Muslims constitute an umma wasatan (a middle community, Qur'an 2:143), while righteous Jews and Christians constitute an umma muqtasida (a balanced community, 5:66) and umma qa'ima (an upright community, Qur'an 3:113). The Constitution's emphasis on righteousness and upright behavior, rather than on religious affiliation, as the principal requirements for membership within the first Muslim polity in Medina was thus shaped by this qur'anic perspective on umma. (13) Historians of Islam and other scholars have pointed to the Constitution of Medina as the earliest documentary evidence of the pluralist impulse within Islam. (14)

After the death of the Prophet, when Islam expanded out of the Arabian peninsula into Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, it encountered the earlier, largely Christian populations of these areas. In return for the payment of a poll tax, from which the poor, the elderly, and religious functionaries were generally exempt, these Christian populations were granted protection of life and property and the right to practice their religion. Popular anecdotes recount how Coptic Christians in Egypt, weary of being persecuted as heretics by the Byzantines, celebrated the arrival of the Muslim Arabs on their shores in the seventh century. (15) For at least two centuries after the early Muslim conquests, until roughly the middle of the tenth century, the majority of the population in these regions remained Christian. (16) This fact clearly establishes that they were not coerced en masse into accepting the faith of their rulers. This is as it should be; the Qur'an categorically declares that there is no compulsion in religion (Qur'an 2:256).

Our historical sources point to the active participation of many Christians and Jews in the flourishing intellectual life of the Islamic world from the eighth century on. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Syriac-speaking Christians, funded by their Muslim patrons, translated the classics of the ancient world written in Greek and Old Persian, for example, into first their native tongue and then into Arabic. Their inclusion in the intellectual life of medieval Islam helped preserve the wisdom of the ancient world and allowed for its later transmission to medieval Europe. Individual Christians and Jews sometimes obtained high positions in Muslim administrations throughout the pre-modern period. Two Christian physicians, for example, attended to Harun al-Rashid, the celebrated ruler in Baghdad of Arabian Nights fame; and Saladin, during the period of the Crusades, had in his employ a Jewish physician, the famous Maimonides or Ibn Maymun, as he was called in Arabic. In medieval Muslim Spain, Jews and Christians were active participants in the cultural and intellectual life that flourished under the Moors. (17) The mutually beneficial interactions among Muslims and Jews in particular in Muslim Spain led to the creation of what may be called Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Islamic culture. Jews who were forced to flee in the fourteenth century from the atrocities of the Spanish Reconquista found refuge in the fifteenth century in Muslim Ottoman lands and established thriving, religiously autonomous communities there. Clearly, the Qur'an's decree of noncompulsion in religion and its injunction to show kindness especially toward Jews and Christians were often taken quite seriously by those who revered it as sacred scripture.

Muslim receptivity to people from the Abrahamic faith traditions, who are fellow monotheists and share to a considerable extent a similar scriptural and prophetic tradition, is understandable. It is worthy of note that, as Muslims encountered over time those outside the monotheistic Abrahamic tradition, the qur'anic principle of noncompulsion in faith was also generally extended to them. Thus, the Zoroastrians of Persia and the Hindus of India came to be accorded the status of "protected people" by their Muslim rulers, a status traditionally reserved for Jews and Christians. Is This meant that, in return for their loyalty to the state and payment of their taxes, they too could continue to practice their religion and their traditional way of life.

A disclaimer is appropriate here: By no means am I implying here that this was a halcyon age completely free of discrimination and persecution of religious minorities. Non-Muslims generally did not enjoy the full rights of Muslims in the pre-modern period when membership in the community was primarily determined on the basis of faith. But, by the standards of the pre-modern age, the elastic concept of the "People of the Book" allowed multiple religious communities to coexist, often peacefully, for stretches of time under various Muslim rulers. The rubric "Islamic civilization" masks the fact that, at its zenith, it was quite a hybrid and cosmopolitan civilization, whose members were of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

The idea of pluralism is considered dangerous by many today, as it was considered by many in the past, on the grounds that it promotes relativism and contributes to a watering down of one's religious identity. A number of medieval exegetes began to propagate by the tenth century the daring--and self-serving--idea that Qur'an 2:256 with its injunction against coercion in religious matters had been abrogated by verses that allow fighting against non-Muslims (such as Qur'an 9:5 and 9:29), (19) in order to bring them under Muslim rule. Some of them were also of the opinion that Qur'an 5:48, to which we have pointed as the quintessential "pluralist" verse, was to be understood as referring only to those communities that had predated the rise of historical Islam. Non-Muslim religious communities after the time of Islam were not to be regarded as following an equally valid law and way of life. (20)

Such illiberal interpretations (magnified by today's extremists), which considerably undermined the qur'anic ethos, were not accepted by all scholars in the pre-modern period. Two of the best known Qur'an commentators mentioned above, al-Tabari (d. 923) (21) and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), (22) resolutely maintained that Qur'an 2:256 had not been abrogated and that its injunction remained valid for all time. A later work on the qur'anic sciences by the Mamluk scholar al-Suyuti (d. 1505) does not refer to Qur'an 2:256 as an abrogated verse. (23) It is, therefore, obvious that, as late as the fifteenth century, there was by no means a scholarly consensus on the abrogation of Qur'an 2:256 and that the most influential commentators of the classical and medieval periods continued to maintain the normative applicability of this verse. The controversial principle of abrogation (naskh) and the frequently skewed and intolerant understandings of the text that it generated are being revisited by a number of Muslim scholars today in a highly critical vein.

Examples of such exegetical dialectics in the pre-modern period reveal to us competing and complex trends in communal identity-formation, particularly in relation to non-Muslims. Muslim supersessionists, who eventually formed the predominant school of thought, subscribed to the superiority of Islam over other revealed religions (though not necessarily denying their validity). This happened despite the fact that no explicit principle of supersession may be adduced from the qur'anic text. The Qur'an instead usually refers to itself as confirming prior revelations. One such verse is the first part of Qur'an 5:48: "And to you [O Muhammad] we have sent down the Book [the Qur'an] in truth confirming [musaddiq] the Books [that is, prior revelations] which have come before it and as a protector over them." However, a certain degree of Muslim triumphalism vis-a-vis their non-Muslim subjects came to color the exegetes' readings of scripture, subverting the overall qur'anic message of religious pluralism. Thus, most exegetes privileged Qur'an 3:85 over 5:48; the former verse states, "Whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers," preferring to understand Islam in the narrow, confessional sense. (24) Such reductive construals ensued from atomistic readings of qur'anic verses. A holistic approach to the text would have instead allowed these exegetes to read, for example Qur'an 3:85, within a discursive, comparative relationship to other verses, such as Qur'an 3:67, (25) which posit a universal, ecumenical understanding of Islam and Muslims.

The rise of extremism in most faith communities today has rendered "pluralism" an urgent global shibboleth. Inclusivist readings of foundational religious texts that promote a pluralist worldview are thus imperative for people of faith who wish to combat intolerance in their midst. A good sense of the history of the reception of these historical texts in variegated circumstances is also crucial. In regard to Muslims, it is essential, as Fazlur Rahman has observed, that they see beyond the historical formulations of their faith and return today to the wellsprings of the Qur'an for moral and spiritual renewal. In this manner, Muslims will be able "to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam." (26) Those who are doing precisely that have been rewarded by being able to retrieve a qur'anic worldview that is accepting of diversity and peaceful coexistence, a worldview that was often mirrored in the praxis of the early Muslim community particularly and one that is especially relevant to our own times. (27) In today's terms, the qur'anic verses 49:13 and 30:22 in particular may be understood to contain a ringing endorsement of religious, cultural, and ethnic pluralism, which is not only tolerated but even embraced as being a part of the overall divine plan.

III. "Reconciliation of Hearts"

A. The Concept of Reconciliation

Finally, the concept of "reconciliation of hearts" (ta 'lif al-qulub) has a very important bearing on interfaith dialogue and coexistence. Qur'an 8:63, for example, states: "And He [that is, God] has joined (or reconciled) their hearts. If you had spent all that is on Earth, you could not have joined their hearts, but God has united them. Indeed, He is Almighty, All-Wise." The medieval commentators agree that this verse specifically refers to two fiercely warring tribes in pre-Islamic Medina known as the Aws and the Khazraj, who became reconciled with one another after their submission to God. Their resulting love for one another dissolved their bitter differences that had been based on tribal affiliation.

The early-eighth-century exegete Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 720) narrates an interesting anecdote in connection with Qur'an 8:63, which illustrates the importance of fostering cordial relationships among believers. Mujahid relates that he once encountered a man named 'Abda b. Abi Lubaba and took the latter's hand in his own, remarking, "If you should see two individuals who harbor love for God [mutahabbin fi'llah] and one of them takes the hand of the other and smiles at him, their sins drop off them just as the leaves drop from the tree." 'Abda told Mujahid, "But indeed that is easy." Mujahid remarked, "Do not say that, for indeed God has stated, 'Were you to spend all that is on earth you would not be able to reconcile their hearts.'" (28) This report conveys Mujahid's conviction that sincere faith in God results in genuine bonds of friendship and good will among believers, expressed outwardly in gestures of friendship toward one another, such as in shaking hands and exchanging smiles. However, simply going through such motions does not automatically create a sense of bonhomie, unless they are firmly embedded in faith and love for God--this latter being a much harder task, as pointed out by Mujahid--and can only be effected by God. Once firmly implanted in one's heart, love for God translates into love for other human beings.

A similar qur'anic verse (3:103) states, "Hold fast, one and all, to the 'rope of God' and let nothing divide you. Remember the grace of God toward you when you were enemies; He joined your hearts and you became through His grace brothers." Al-Tabari cites two reports related by the Prophet Muhammad's close Companions in explanation of this verse. The first report relates that the verse means, "You used to slaughter one another in it [that is, in the pre-Islamic period, called in Arabic al-Jahiliyya] and the strong used to prey on the weak until God brought forth Islam and made of you brothers and joined you together [or reconciled you]. By God, and there is no god but He; indeed friendship is mercy and divisiveness is a punishment." The second variant report states in explanation, "You used to kill one another, with the strong among you preying upon the weak until God brought forth Islam and joined you together by it, assembled you together, and made of you brothers by means of it." (29) These two reports, therefore, expound on the intrinsic benefit of the remembrance of God and making oneself receptive to submission to God's will for believers in general.

The exegete Ibn Kathir further points to the danger inherent in relaxing one's guard against potential dissension, thus allowing seditious elements to stir up enmity. He relates an anecdote in exegesis of Qur'an 3:103, according to which an individual of ill will was displeased to see the friendship and love between the members of the previously mentioned Aws and Khazraj tribes in Medina. So he dispatched one of his companions to sit among them and revive the memory of their prolonged wars during the pre-Islamic period. The man did as he was told, and, before long, he had succeeded in inflaming the passions of the Aws and Khazraj to the extent that they started chanting their battle slogans from bygone times and reaching for their weapons. News of this reached the Prophet, and he hurriedly approached them and began to calm them down. He asked, "Are you harking back to the pre-Islamic period while I am among you?" Then he recited to them the verse, "Remember the grace of God toward you when you were enemies; He joined your hearts and you became through His grace brothers." Upon hearing this, they were filled with remorse. They began to make up with one another, and embraced one another after having cast away their weapons." (30)

This report highlights the recuperative power of the remembrance of God and God's limitless grace toward humans, which effaces the memory of past wrongs and allows for healing and reconciliation. But, it also warns, such memories can be resurrected by those malignantly inclined to sow dissension. The constant invocation of God in gratitude for God's immeasurable benevolence toward humankind is, however, a potent shield against the incitements of troublemakers and helps preserve the unity of believers.

Two more related qur'anic verses similarly emphasize the transformative power of love for and forgiveness of one's enemy as a result of true faith and righteousness. Qur'an 41:34 states, "Repel evil with what is better than it; then the one between whom and yourself enmity prevails will become like your friend"; and Qur'an 3:134 states, "The righteous are those who suppress their anger and forgive people--verily God loves those who do good." These two verses counsel believers not to give in to the natural impulse to seek revenge for the infliction of some harm upon them. The suppression of one's possibly justifiable anger and subsequent forgiveness is a far superior course of action, because it is selfless and leads to the desired result, that is, to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In his commentary on Qur'an 41:34, al-Tabari says that God counseled the Prophet Muhammad to ward off the recklessness of his opponents by his gentleness, to prevent the wrong of the wrongdoers through forgiveness, and to be patient in the face of the trials his enemies visited upon him. Al-Tabari also quotes Ibn 'Abbas, the well-known Companion of the Prophet, who said that "God had commanded the believers to be patient when angry, and to show clemency and forgiveness when they are wronged. If they do so, God protects them from evil, and their enemy relents toward them and [becomes] as if he were a bosom friend." (31)

The exegete Ibn Kathir further remarked that, according to Qur'an 41:34, it is precisely the act of charitableness and kindness (al-ihsan) evident in repelling evil with good (that is, by forsaking retaliation for some injury) that causes "your adversary to seek reconciliation with you, to develop affection and sympathy for you," so much so that he or she now becomes transformed into "your intimate friend or your relative on account of [his or her] compassion for and charity toward you." (32)

According to the nineteenth-century modernist exegete Muhammad 'Abduh, the verse, "Were you to spend all that is on earth, you could not reconcile their hearts," means that it was only due to God's grace that the believers had become united in affectionate fellowship that was much stronger than any alliance based on common descent and shared nationality. Given the duration of their internecine warfare, no amount of worldly goods or benefits could have eradicated the deep-seated hostility between the Aws and Khazraj tribes. Only sincere faith, says 'Abduh, which engenders happiness in this world and the next, could have extinguished such bitter enmity.

'Abduh understands this verse to apply as well to the Meccan Muslims, who became brothers of the Medinan Muslims in faith, despite differences in social status and worldly rank. This is a reference to the formal process of "brothering" or "pairing" that took place between each Meccan emigrant Muslim and a Medinah convert to encourage camaraderie and mutual help between them. (33) 'Abduh underscores this dramatic transformation in the following way: "As for the Muhajirun, reconciliation (ta'lif) occurred among their rich and the poor, their masters and their clients, their nobility and their common people, in spite of the arrogance of the Jahiliyya that had previously existed among them." It was this concord which existed among them that allowed them to endure the enmity of their fellow tribesmembers and relatives for the sake of God. None of this could have been achieved through all the wealth and enticements of the world. (34)

'Abduh then goes on to point to the centrality of love in human relationships as asserted by wise people through the ages. They agree that "[l]ove is the greatest of all bonds among humans, and the most potent inducement to happiness is human social life and its refinement." They further concur that, in the absence of love, nothing else can take its place in repelling evil, while the proper functioning of society is contingent on "the virtue of justice." 'Abduh asserts that justice in particular was the due of all who reside in the Islamic state, with no distinction between the Muslim and non-Muslim, the pious and the impious, the rich and the poor, etc. (35) In this important exegesis, 'Abduh goes further than his medieval predecessors and extends the concept of reconciliation based on love and justice to all human beings, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). He argues that, out of love for the Creator and adherence to justice, the individual and the state must treat everyone even-handedly.

B. The Praxis of Reconciliation

The qur'anic concept of ta'lif al-qulub was considered an important ethical principle in early Islamic history and set in motion a praxis of reconciliation vis-a-vis non-Muslims in particular that is worthy of resurrection in the contemporary period. This concept engendered the important sociolegal category of "those whose hearts are to be reconciled" (mu'allafat al-qulub), referring to people whose friendship and alliance were to be nurtured and cultivated in a number of ways in the early period. This category of people included new converts to Islam and non-Muslims, Jews, Christians, and even "polytheists" (as they are termed in the literature), whose good will and friendship were deemed as contributing to the well-being of the community. As essential members of the polity, they were entitled to both the obligatory alms (zakat) and the voluntary offerings (sadaqa) of Muslims and the revenues of the state. (36) In accordance with these scriptural imperatives, Muhammad's administrative policy in Medina had been deliberately and particularly inclusive of "the People of the Book" who wished to reside in Muslim lands in peace and good will. His policy of conciliation toward them reflects the Qur'an's recognition of righteous Jews and Christians as constituting "an upright community," as mentioned earlier. The Prophet's generosity further extended to the former staunch enemies of Islam, especially the nobility of the tribe of Quraysh, who were granted a general amnesty after the fall of Mecca to the Muslims in 630 C.E. and whose hearts were now to be reconciled to Islam. (37)

The Prophet's practice was continued by his early successors. Under the second caliph, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 644), poor Jews and Christians received provisions from the public treasury for their maintenance. (38) An early author, Abu Yusuf (d. 798), relates a touching anecdote about 'Umar, the second caliph, who once encountered an old, blind

Jewish man begging for alms and brought him to his home out of pity. He offered the destitute man a modest sum of money from his own funds as alms and, upon inquiry, discovered that the latter had been paying taxes to the state. A shocked 'Umar proclaimed this to be an injustice and ordered the state treasury to immediately desist and to treat him instead as one of the impoverished scriptuaries entitled to state maintenance. (39)

'Umar's example allowed medieval jurists to conclude that non-Muslims, just as Muslims, had certain claims on the Islamic state for their basic welfare and sustenance. (40) This was in accordance with the qur'anic verse that states: "Indeed the obligatory alms are for the poor, the destitute, those who collect the alms, those whose hearts are to be reconciled, to ransom [slaves and prisoners of war], for those in debt, those who are engaged in the path of God, and for the wayfarer--a duty imposed by God; God is All-Knowing, All-Wise" (Qur'an 9:60).

According to the above verse, the non-Muslim poor would appear to be doubly advantaged in being needy and belonging to the category of "those whose hearts are to be reconciled." Able-bodied adult male scriptuaries (that is, People of the Book) were normally required to pay a kind of poll-tax called the jizya in return for state protection, military or otherwise, of their rights. Women, minors, the infirm, the old, and the destitute as well as religious clerics and monks, however, were exempted from its remittance. The infirm, the old, and the destitute among the scriptuaries instead received pensions from the state treasury, as they were the equivalent of "wards of the state," whose maintenance was consequently a basic, humane responsibility of the state. This status was mandated by the hadith in which the Prophet states, "I am the guardian of a person who has no guardian." (41) After the Prophet's death, the state was expected to assume this position of guardianship vis-a-vis orphans, the homeless, and other destitutes. In this pre-modern system of state welfare, poor residents of Islamic lands, irrespective of religion, were thus entitled to a portion of the government's revenues from zakat, the obligatory alms enjoined upon the Muslim. In the eleventh century, the well-known jurist al-Mawardi (d. 1058), in his influential work, The Governmental Ordinances, continued to recognize the entitlement of "those whose hearts are to be reconciled," regardless of whether they were Muslim or non-Muslim, to a portion of the taxes paid by Muslims to their state. (42)

The policy of inclusiveness indicated above was a consequence of the charitable compassion that Muslims were exhorted by their sacred texts and the practices of their predecessors to display toward all those who were needy, regardless of their religious orientation. The special status of "those whose hearts are to be reconciled" was not always given due recognition in the later period, however, and, in fact, the concept fell into disuse in the late Middle Ages. In our fractious times as we combat religious particularism, Muslims would do well to revive the spirit of charity and reconciliation encoded in the concept of ta 'lif al-qulub and its practice in the early Islamic community.


The qur'anic verses discussed above and their exegeses by some of the most prominent Muslim commentators through time have much to tell us today about faith-based resolution of conflictual situations and harmonious coexistence with others. The verses locate both love and animosity within the human heart; which of the two gets the upper hand within it is contingent upon certain choices of the individual. The individual, on the one hand, may choose to believe in and submit to God, thereby cleansing his or her heart of resistance to God's will and allowing one's heart to be flooded with love for God and, consequently, for God's creation. On the other hand, one can reject faith in God and harden one's heart against other human beings and thus allow oneself to be swept away by worldly needs and the desire for dominance. The two diametrically opposed states are exemplified by the Medinan tribes of Aws and Khazraj, which were intractable enemies before the advent of Islam. But, once faith entered their hearts through their submission to God, it was God, as the exegetes remind us, who transformed their inward state from one of animosity to comradely love and reconciliation. The exegetes are thus alluding to the transformative power of selfless love uncorrupted by ulterior motives other than the common pursuit and defense of a higher truth and reality.

In terms of generating social harmony, several reports relate that internal feelings of comradely love need to be expressed in external gestures of bonhomie and affection toward one another, such as smiling, shaking hands, and embracing one another. For hearts to reconcile and strengthen social bonds, it is not enough, however, to simply go through these gestures of affection and rapprochement. If such gestures do not spring from a deep-seated conviction that another human being must be loved for the sake of God, then they remain at the level of external social politesse and cannot effect social reform at the deepest emotional level. As the late-seventh-century exegete Mujahid had counseled, transformation of one's heart as a prelude to genuine reconciliation is a much more difficult and challenging enterprise and requires that one be, above all, constantly receptive to God's guidance and will. Reconciliation, once effected, requires constant vigilance and nurturing, since, as 'Umayr b. Ishaq warned, friendship and intimacy among people may become eroded in adverse circumstances.

While pre-modern exegetes focused on intra-Muslim reconciliation that would ensue from the implementation of the injunctions contained in these crucial verses, modern exegetes such as Muhammad 'Abduh extend the exegetical purview of these verses to include believers of any faith and non-Muslims in general as the recipients of Muslim affectionate sentiments. 'Abduh's views may be seen as a logical extension of the praxis of reconciliation that grew out of the qur'anic commandment to extend charity and kindness to "those whose hearts are to be reconciled." The concept of "reconciliation of hearts" allowed non-Muslims to be included as members of the Islamic polity, whose well-being was a matter of concern to their Muslim patrons.

The three qur'anic concepts discussed above have not been engaged adequately and placed in the forefront of contemporary Islamic thought to create a paradigm of religious peace-building and interfaith dialogue. These central concepts allow for a theology of forgiveness and reconciliation to emerge within Islam, rooted in a firm belief in God and God's boundless love for us. Such a theology goads us into learning about one another and developing compassion for the other. In learning about the other, we learn more about ourselves. We are further impelled to seek out our commonalities, all the while respecting our divinely decreed diversity.

Qur'anic notions of forgiveness and compassion and their transformative power to effect reconciliation among diverse peoples will readily strike a chord among many interlocutors from diverse faith traditions that similarly emphasize the redemptive nature of love, both divine and human. Jewish and Christian concepts of neighborliness and hospitality toward the stranger create similar imperatives to get to know one another. (43) Thus, Ex. 23:9, which commands that "You shall not oppress a resident alien," and Rom. 15:7, in which Paul exhorts the Romans to "[w]elcome one another, ... as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God," (44) may be understood to be parallel to Qur'an 49:13, which counsels knowledge of one another, and Qur'an 5:48, which counsels all to hasten in doing good works for the sake of God. Such notions in tandem create a shared, global idiom in which to express the best of our respective religious traditions and to create a common discourse of righteousness and of ethical behavior toward others. On this basis we may hope to get to know one another well, moving far beyond mere tolerance of one another toward genuine pluralism, paving the way to enduring religious reconciliation and peaceful coexistence of peoples of different persuasions.

(1) Translations from the Qur'an and other Arabic texts are my own.

(2) Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Jami 'al-bayan fi tafsir al-Qur'an (The Compendium of Eloquence in Exegesis of the Qur'an) (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1997), vol. 11, p. 399.

(3) Isma'il Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'azim (Exegesis of the Glorious Qur'an) (Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1990), vol.. 4, p. 219.

(4) This verse states, "Say: 'We believe in God, and that which has been sent down to us, and sent down on Abraham and Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we surrender [muslimun].'" For a discussion of inclusivist and exclusivist understandings of this verse and of the term "Islam" itself, see Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 38-40.

(5) Sachedina, Islamic Roots, p. 40; also see the comprehensive survey by Sohail Hashmi, "The Qur'an and Tolerance: An Interpretive Essay on Verse 5:48," Journal of Human Rights 2 (March, 2003): 81-103.

(6) This is worth remembering in the context of the alleged episodes of Qur'an desecration reported in connection with the treatment of Muslim prisoners by American security guards at Guantanamo Bay in 2005.

(7) For a useful overview of these broad historical trends, see W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1968), pp. 54-63.

(8) See, e.g., Sachedina, Islamic Roots, pp. 94-96.

(9) Al-Tabari, Jami 'al-bayan, vol. 11, p. 398.

(10) Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, vol. 4, p. 218.

(11) Syed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), p. 6.

(12) Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, vol. 1, p. 196.

(13) For the full text of the Constitution and an analysis of its main tenets, see W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 221-225; and R. B. Serjeant, "The 'Constitution of Medina,'" The Islamic Quarterly 8 (January-June, 1964): 3-16. For the Arabic original of the Constitution, see Ibn Hisham, al-Sira al-nabawiyya (The Prophet's Biography), ed. Suhayl Zakkar (Be rut Dar al-fikr, 1992), vol. 1, pp. 351 ff.

(14) E.g., Ali Bulac, "The Med na Document," in Charles Kurzman, ed., Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 169-184; and Muqtedar Khan, "The Primacy of Political Philosophy," in Khaled Abou El Fadl, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 66-67.

(15) Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri, The Origins of the Islamic State, Being a Translation from the Arabic, accompanied with Annotations, Geographic and Historic Notes of the Kitab futuh al-buldan of al-Imam Abu l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Jabir al-Baladhuri, tr. Philip Khuri Hitti (New York: Columbia University, 1916-24), p. 211; and T. W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1913), p. 54.

(16) E.g., Robert Schick, The Christian Communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic Rule: An Historical and Archaeological Study (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995), pp. 77-80, 96-97; and Michael Morony, Iraq after the Muslim Conquest (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1984), pp. 332-383.

(17) Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002).

(18) Cf. Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 18.

(19) These verses have been referred to as "the sword verses." For a criticism of the views of certain medieval jurists who gave precedence to these verses over more conciliatory ones and who read them divorced from their historical contexts, see my article "Competing Perspectives on Jihad and Martyrdom in Early Islamic Sources," in Brian Wicker, ed., Witnesses for the Faith: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Martyrdom (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 20-23. For a brief account of how militants today privilege these intolerant interpretations, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), pp. 217-219.

(20) For a nuanced, insightful discussion of these competing hermeneutics, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002), pp. 3-23.

(21) Al-Tabari, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 3, p. 25.

(22) Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, vol. 1, pp. 416-417.

(23) Al-Suyuti, al-Itqan fi 'ulum al-qur'an (Certainty regarding the Qur'anic Sciences), ed. Mustafa Dib al-Bugha (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1993), vol. 2, pp. 706-712.

(24) For this important discussion, see Sachedina, Islamic Roots, pp. 31ff.; and Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 206-207.

(25) This verse states, "Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but an upright monotheist [hanif], one who had surrendered to God [muslim], and he was not one of the associationists."

(26) Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 141.

(27) See, e.g., the selection of writings by various modern liberal authors in the previously mentioned anthology: Kurzman, Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook.

(28) As cited by al-Tabari, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 6, pp. 280-281.

(29) Al-Tabari, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 3, pp. 380-381.

(30) Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, vol. 3, p. 136.

(31) Al-Tabari, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 11, p. 111.

(32) Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, vol. 4, p. 103.

(33) The sources do not report a comparable "sistering" system, although, of course, both women and men were encouraged to cultivate fellowship among themselves. One important reason for this is that the "brothering" among men involved financial assistance on the part of Medinan Muslims of the usually impoverished Meccan emigrants, who had abandoned most of their worldly belongings in Mecca. The Arabic term for the Medinan Muslims is Ansar, meaning "helpers." Financial and psychological assistance was a big component of this helping process.

(34) Muhammad 'Abduh, Tafsir al-Manar (Exegesis of the Beacon) (Cairo: Matba'at al-Manar, 1931), vol. 10, p. 71.

(35) Ibid.

(36) See Ibn Hisham. Sira, 2:929-935; and Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ta 'rikh al-umam wa-'l-muluk (History of the Nations and Kings) (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1997), vol. 2, p. 175.

(37) See, e.g., Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1995), p. 299.

(38) Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj (The Book of Land Taxation) (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1962), p. 122.

(39) Ibid., p. 126.

(40) Ibid., p. 144; see also Ahmad Moussalli, Images of Islam in the Western World and Images of the West in the Islamic World (Riyadh: Arab-PR, 2003), p. 111.

(41) See Muhammad ibn 'Isa al-Tirmidhi, al-Jami'al-sahih (The Sound Compendium), ed. Kareal Yusuf al-Hut (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, n.d.), vol. 4, p. 367.

(42) 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya wa-'l-wilayat al-diniyya (Governmental Ordinances and Religious Stewardship), ed. 'Isam Faris al-Harastani and Muhammad Ibrahim al-Zaghli (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1996), pp. 193-194.

(43) The biblical notion of hospitality and its potential for fostering religious pluralism has been emphasized recently by Martin E. Marty in his When Faiths Collide (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Co., 2005).

(44) Both texts are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (New York: Div. of Christian Education, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1989).
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Date:Jun 22, 2007
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