Believing and Belonging in a Pluralist Society: Exploring Resources in Islamic Traditions

‘And indeed We have honoured the children of Adam...' Qur'an 17:70

‘If your Lord so willed, He could have made mankind one people.' Qur'an 11:118

‘O mankind, We have created you from a single (pair) of male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.' Qur'an 49:13

What is the meaning of having a belief that creates an exclusive community and the community by virtue of shared belief cannot live in isolation and demands participation? The community of believers is asked to engage in a society that is largely ‘illiterate' about religion. Here one is entitled to believe without belonging to a community and one can belong but may not believe. Here one may have a personal religion, and one may pick and mix and create his/her own belief. The Muslims' dilemma is that they are a faith-based community - believing and belonging to the community - the ummah, goes hand in hand. By virtue of belief one belongs to and by virtue of belonging one believes in. Here we will explore some of the Islamic resources for a religiously pluralist society and other aspects of pluralism are not the focus of this paper.

Qur'anic Vision of a Pluralist Society

The Qur'an is the anchor of that believing and belonging community and the Prophet Muhammad is its leader. The subject matter of the Qur'an is human beings and they are the basic addressees of it. And to establish a cohesive humane and just social order is its earthly objective. The Qur'an creates a society where the individual and the society is under an obligation to ‘enjoin good and forbid evil' (3:104; 110; 9:71). The Quran regards the Prophet Muhammad as one among many Prophets. Few of them it has mentioned and of others it says: ‘We have not related to you...' (40:78) and every people have been sent its guide (35:24). It claims that for every community God has sent messengers and they will be ‘judged between them with Justice, and they will not be wronged'(10:47). It also declares that for each community God has appointed a different path (shir‘ah) and way (minhaj) (5:48.). These different communities with various emphases of beliefs are encouraged to ‘compete with one another (as in a race) in righteous deeds. Wherever you are God will bring you all together...'(2:148).

Differences of belief are seen as God's plan. The abolition of such differences is not the purpose of the Qur'an nor is the Prophet Muhammad sent for that purpose. The Qur'an also emphasises that such differences do not suggest that their origin is different rather it emphasises that human beings have a common spirituality and morality (7:172, 91:7-10). These differences are there because God has given human beings the freedom to chose: ‘And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would have believed to faith altogether: would you force people against their will to believe!(10:99).

In this Qur'anic vision of unity and diversity the human task is to find a way to handle the differences. In a society matters should be discussed, debated and a consensus should emerge and no force be allowed to countenance aggression and violence (22:39-40). In all these processes Muslims are bound by their belief to cooperate with all - Muslims or not - in securing peace and justice. Even if that justice points to the guilt of one's family - let alone the community - the Qur'an instructs that justice must prevail. (4:135)

These few verses from the Qur'an suggest that Muslims have enough resources to allow them to rethink and relocate their theological resources. A pluralist society can be built whether in majority or minority communities - Muslims or otherwise - and can feel free to engage and participate fully in the society that they are living in. Here it would not be out of place to indicate that the Qur'an claims itself as the book of Guidance (31:2-3). The Prophet Muhammad acts upon the Qur'an and shows the community what it means and how it should be practiced. If a clear direction is not found in the Qur'an, Muslims are encouraged to look into the practices of the Prophet. If nothing is found there, the Muslim community - through their learned scholars - is encouraged to reach a consensus which is nearest to the spirit of Islam. In this process any attempt to freeze the society in the norms of the past is not acceptable nor is to drag the society back to the past tolerable. What is required is to look back, keep the connection and not lose track. A keen eye is required to differentiate between what is central and what is peripheral.

Prophets throughout history, as Qur'an points out were born and brought up amongst the people to whom they preached. They always addressed them as their own people regardless of their belief. They were concerned about them and always wished the best for them. An important characteristic was that they reminded their people about their duty towards their Creator as well as their duty towards their fellow human beings. They pointed out their weaknesses and prophetically told them what would happen if they did not mend their ways. They always linked the need to worship One God and the need to stand on the side of justice. In other words, believing in God demands the duty of belonging to the community in a true sense. The Qur'an says, for example, ‘And to Midian [a place north-east of the Sinai Peninsula] We sent forth their brother Shua‘yb. He said to them: O my people! Serve God, you have no god but Him. Indeed a clear proof has come to you from your Lord. So give just weight and measure and diminish not to men their things and make no mischief on the earth after it has been set in good order.'(7:85). Another example is Moses, who was sent to Pharaoh who oppressed and subjugated the children of Israel. He said ‘O Pharaoh! I am a messenger from the Lord of the Worlds, - say nothing but truth let the Children of Israel depart along with me'. (7:104-5).

These points suggest that in an Islamic vision of a pluralist society, the mission of the Prophets includes all human beings and justice and dignity is at its core. The Prophet Muhammad's mission was no different.

The Prophet Muhammad and Pluralist Society

Though the city of Makkah at the time of the Prophet Muhammad was largely dominated by tribal loyalties, there were people who not only practised fairness and justice in their lives but also encouraged others to do so. An incident witnessed by the 20 year old Muhammad, took place in Makkah that helped the city to see through the misty haze of corruption and tribalism. A merchant from a foreign land, reports suggest he was from Yemen, arrived in Makkah and had dealings with a member of the influential Quraish tribe. The member of the Quraish tribe received goods from the Yemeni trader but refused to pay for them. The Yemeni traders then pleaded with the leaders of the tribes and asked for justice. This incident became the immediate cause of the formation of a historic alliance of the tribes known as Hil al-Fudul (‘Alliance of the virtuous' which was named after the three leading people whose name contained the word fadl ‘virtue' the singular of fudul). There was simmering discontent amongst the Makkans but they could not do anything because they lacked the necessary support from the tribal leaders.

The newly formed alliance immediately asked the Quraish man to pay the amount due to the Yemeni, which he did. The alliance also established modus operandi according to which a resident, or a stranger to the city, if treated unjustly would receive the full support of the members of the alliance and they would stand by the oppressed until justice had been done. The Prophet Muhammad, as pointed out earlier, attended this historic alliance and he remained loyal throughout his life to this agreement. ‘I would not exchange for the best of material gains' he said, ‘if someone appeals to it in Islam I would respond'.

The last sentence is significant. As far as people, who participated in the Alliance, were concerned they were not ‘Muslims'. The Prophet's ministry was still 20 years away, yet in his Prophetic ministry he always remembered this Alliance - conducted by ‘non-Muslims' - with fond memory and strong approval. What it means is that anything that is commonly known as good (ma'ruf) should not wait any religious approval or tag, rather it should be considered as part of own heritage. The Prophet once said that such a thing should be considered as a ‘believer's lost property' [mirath].

Another landmark event took place when the Prophet migrated to Madinah. The first thing he did was to establish a Covenant between the Ansar - natives of Madinah - and the migrants from Makkah who had left behind their business and property, known as Muhajirs, and the Jews - the entrepreneurs of Madinan society. The Covenant was of great significance in that it took place against the backdrop of bloody and ruthless tribal conflicts. The document was relatively long containing 52 sentences or ‘clauses'(1). It dealt with the concerns of those who had left their homes and had nowhere to live and the concerns of those who, like the Jews, wished that their culture and norms should not be impeded. This document provided a basis for participation in the social life of the society. There was recognition that each party had a right to persue their way of life and livelihood without encroaching upon others' rights and that each party had a duty to help and protect the other in times of crisis and aggression from outside. It also recognised and established an acceptable pattern of compensation for the loss of life and property for all the people of Madinah. The Covenant was drafted after proper consultation with the leaders of the respective communities and that provided the kind of political system which was acceptable to all. It clearly stated that the ‘God-fearing believers shall be against rebellions or him who seeks to spread injustice, or sin or enmity, or corruption between believers; the hand of every man shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them.'

Another incident in the Prophet's life indicative of his inclusiveness was shown in his relations with the ruler of Abyssinia, the Negus or Najashi. He was a Christian and was known for his generosity and kindness. When the nascent Muslim community faced persecution in Makkah, the prophet encouraged his followers to take refuge in Abyssinia and these qualities of the King were highlighted by the Prophet. Gradually, in small numbers the Muslims began to arrive in Abyssinia and some of them interacted with the larger community and lived as a minority amongst the Christian majority. The Makkans however tried to win over the king with gifts and persuasion so that he would hand over to them these ‘bandits' and ‘culprits' of their society. The king refused and gave the refugees all help they needed. However another opportunity arose to persuade the king. Two years after the migration of the Prophet to Madinah the war lords of Makkah attacked Madinah but lost the battle. Fresh from defeat, they again asked the Negus to hand over the refugees who were still unable to join the Muslim community in Madinah. When the Prophet came to know about the intention of the Makkans he decided to send an envoy to Negus and chose ‘Amar ibn Umaiyah ad-Damariy - a Christian (2). It may be said that this was political pragmatism and a pre-emptive action on the part of the Prophet. However, it does not diminish the fact that people who were not Muslims played a significant role in building a Muslim society. By their affiliation to other faiths they did not disqualify themselves from being part of a society where Islam is dominant.

The Negus died a few years after this incident. When the news reached the Prophet he told his Companions that their brother had died, and that they should pray for him. He performed a special prayer which meant that the Negus died as a Muslim. But no one saw the Negus praying as a Muslim prays nor did he fast during the month of Ramadan as Muslims did. Throughout his life he remained a Christian and was known as generous and just. This incident suggests that we should not be judgemental about what is in the hearts of others and how God will judge a person for his/her belief. Salvation is not so crucial and central an issue in Islam as it is in Christianity. The central theme that runs throughout Islamic thought is to ‘please God' and in that pleasure one finds solace and salvation. Furthermore this incident also suggests that our belonging has a much wider meaning than just to belong to our own community or ummah. We do connect with others in our humanity. In the development of our own community we owe a great deal to others and by their contribution to ours, in some way, they too become part of us.

I would like to illustrate this point with another incident in the Prophet Muhammad's life. How this belonging has a wider connection. The Makkans imposed a social boycott on Banu Hashim, the tribe that the Prophet belonged to. The Prophet's activities in Makkah were the main reason for this sanction. The Prophet's uncle, Abu Talib fearful that one day a mob may attack Muhammad and his few converts, he decided to take Banu Hashim to the safety of a valley where they remained for about three years. Nobody was allowed to sell food or to have business transactions of any kind with them. A number of elderly people and young children died of hunger and disease during this period. Such severe cruelty and injustice, where nobody was allowed to take even small amount of food for the children in the valley, was opposed by people of dignity and decency one of them being Mutim bin Adiy. He consistently opposed the sanctions. He worked towards getting recanted the decree of sanctions a copy of which hung on the walls of the Ka‘bah. He gained support from a few decent Makkan leaders and, eventually, he publicly tore down the decree.

Mutim bin Adiy also made another significant contribution, which stands out a rare example of courage and fortitude. Concerned about the growing hostility towards the Prophet after the death of his uncle Abu Talib, he went to the city of Ta'if talk to the leaders of the influential Taqif Family there. Though they listened to him they soon began to ridicule him and rejected his message of peace and justice. When the Prophet visited Ta'if they encouraged hooligans to deried the Prophet wherever he went. History records a bleeding Prophet, saying ‘O God, to You I complain of my weakness, little resources and lowliness before men. O Most Merciful, You art the Lord of the weak and You art my Lord ... I take refuge in the light of Your countenance by which the darkness is illuminated. It is for You to be satisfied until You are well pleased. There is no power and no might save in You.' And he forgave his enemies.

The Prophet returned to Makkah. But according to the tradition of the time he had to ‘renew' his ‘stay' in Makkah and this was possible only if an influential family head would provide support. The Prophet approached the heads of various families through a mediator, seeking their support before he was allowed to enter Makkah. All turned him down, except Mutim bin Adiy Who collected his weapons from his home, asked his sons and nephews to accompany him, escorted the Prophet to Makkah and declared that he was giving him the protection.

The message that emerge from such incidents is clear. Muslims in a pluralist society, particularly in today's context, need to re-visit their perceptions about the people around them. The tendency of perceiving all those who are not Muslims as inherently ‘antagonistic' to Islam and Muslims and ‘perpetually' conspiring against them, needs rethinking. There are very good souls and fine people beyond our own community.

Changing Perception of the Faith-based Identity

Muslims have built their resources on the basis of the Qur'an and the Prophetic traditions. They interpreted and contextualized their vision of an Islamic pluralist society as much as they could in the world in which they found themselves. These interpretations and priorities always had a socio-political and economic perception of the time. Soon after the Prophet's death, people's identity was based on their affiliation to their faith. A faith based identity emerged and continued to provide a framework where all others could play a constructive role within and outside their communities. As far as Muslims were concerned, the society's order and norms must be dictated by three elements: elimination of prejudice, easing hardship and establishing justice. These three elements are to be established in the society irrespective of religious belonging. These elements should benefit the individual and laws should be in place to protect these benefits and improve them according to time and place. In the Islamic tradition five basic necessities that have been identified as essentials, as Al-Ghazali puts it, ‘to promote the welfare of the people, which lies in safeguarding their faith, their life, their intellect, their posterity and their wealth. Whatever ensures the safeguarding of these five serves the public interest and is desirable.' The welfare of the individual and the community, as described by Ibn al-Qayyim, ‘lies in complete justice, mercy, well being and wisdom.' Anything that moves from welfare to misery has nothing at all to do with Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah further enhanced these objectives and listed things like the fulfilment of contracts, the preservation of ties of kinship and respect for the rights of one's neighbours. Today, Yusuf al-Qaradawi argued to extend the list of the objectives, including human dignity, freedom, social welfare and human fraternity(3).

The Muslim world was largely divided between those who lived in Muslim territories (Dar al-Islam) and those who lived outside its domain, generally considered as the territories of War (Dar al-Harb). But this description of the world was already on its way out. By 1839, the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Caliphate changed the whole minority-majority concepts within and outside its boundary. The Tanzimat reform removed the faith-based identity and replaced it with citizenship.

The Ottoman Caliphate faced some difficulties in maintaining its role as a guardian of the Muslim ummah, on the one hand, and dealing with Muslims who were considered perhaps ‘unreliable' because of where they lived. Muslims who lived in a territory which did not have any allegiance to the Caliphate, were perhaps considered against them. For example, a constant flow of Algerians began to leave their country after its was colonized by France. An aggressive Europeanization policy was introduced in the country which the Algerians resisted. Those who faced persecution in Algeria gradually entered Syria which was under the Ottoman domain. There they sought asylum but retained their French passport. They benefited both by being French which allowed them to travel to France and Algerian if and when needed and by being Muslim if they wanted to live in the domain of the Caliphate. Finally, the situation became intolerable for the Ottomans and they required these asylum seekers to declare whether they regarded themselves as French or they wanted to acquire Ottoman citizenship.

Another case, for example, was the Muslim subjects of Queen Victoria. Indian Muslims faced a dilemma when they arrived for hajj or pilgrimage in Makkah. Technically these Muslims were considered travellers from an enemy territory. But practically, it was the duty of the Ottomans to receive and provide the necessary facilities for these pilgrims. A solution was found by the Ottomans that they allowed the Indian Muslims to perform the pilgrimage and leave the Ottoman in territory immediately after all rituals were performed, whereas other pilgrims from ‘friendly' territories were allowed to stay for longer period, even for months, in the holy land. Such events and the increasing importance of the nation states where countries are dependent on migrant workers, has changed the debate against faith-based identity in favour of citizenship as the basis of identity without denying the fellowship of the ummah.


Today the Muslims' socio-religious discourse is largely dominated by the discourse of Muslims living in a predominantly Muslim society. Muslim Jurisprudence and its legacy are largely an exploration of how they ruled and conducted their affairs within and with the outside world. They do discuss minorities but within their domain. It is a rich and excellent source. Those living as a significant minority for centuries are almost lost in this discourse. Muslims lived as a minority, for example in Cyprus, Muslims rulers and Cypriots concluded a treaty in the 7th century and as a result Cyprus remained outside the domain of the Muslim Caliphate for centuries. Muslims lived there and conducted their affairs in peace and harmony. But how did they live there? And how did they conduct their affairs in the midst of a Christian majority? How did they maintain their identity as Muslims and at the same time felt at ease living there? It seems Muslims have little resources to explore this co-existence and to derive and contextualize anew the circumstances they find themselves in today. Over the centuries, and particularly the last hundred years or so, Muslim discourse has been led by political priorities and has had little opportunity to explore the issues of jurisprudence and theology and the challenges faced by significant Muslim populations today. The recent mass migration of Muslims to the European and North American countries is forcing Muslims to revisit their theological roots and reconnect them with today's world. There is an urgency to search for a new language, that will recognizably be Islamic, which will not only take note of those Muslims living as a minority but also those minorities living amongst the midst of Muslim majorities. Believing demands that our relationship with God be strengthened but it also demands that our communal belonging should not be conducted in isolation of all other communities.


  1. See the full text, translation and a short commentary by Hamidullah, Muhammad, The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet, Lahore: Sh: Muhammad Ashraf, (Third Revised edition), 1975.
  2. Hamidullah, Muhammad, The Muslim Conduct of State, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, (Revised edition), 1977, p.205
  3. See for details Kamali, M. Hashim, "Maqasid Al-Shariah: The Objectives of Islamic Law" Newsletter of the Association of Muslim Lawyers and the Islamic Foundation's Legal Studies Unit, Vol. 3 Issue 1 (April-June 1998), pp13-19.


*Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui is a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamic Foundation, Markfield, Leicester (U.K.) and is co-editor of the bi-annual journal Encounters: Journal of Inter-Cultural Perspectives. He is the Director of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education where he also teaches ‘Islam and
Pluralism' and ‘Inter-Faith Studies'.