Sunday, May 26, 2013

Religious Tolerance

Sura 22 Aya 67

To every community We have given ways of worship which they observe. Therefore, do not let them draw you into disputes on this matter, but invite people to your Lord, for you are on the right way.

An attitude of religious tolerance is described in this verse. It is in recognizing the authenticity of the different ways of worship found among different people. Different religious traditions represent different possible paths to God-consciousness, and it is a mistake to argue with people about their traditions and rituals. 

The opposite attitude is to consider our own particular ritual of prayer as the only one acceptable to God. An extension of this belief is that all other ways are misguided and those who follow them are bound for hell. This belief is the root of intolerance. It has caused enmity and bloodshed between religious communities for centuries.
When Muslims were a new community on Long Island in the 1980s, they formed an association but did not have a building of their own. They approached a church, and the elders of the church gladly gave them permission to hold their prayers in the church. The church elders demonstrated the wisdom conveyed by this aya.

In a few years, the Muslim community collected enough funds to build a mosque of their own and moved their congregation to the new building. A few years later, a group of Ismaili Muslims approached them because they were new to the area and did not yet have a building of their own. They asked the officials of the mosque for permission to hold their prayer services in the mosque. The mosque officials denied them permission. “The Ismailies are misguided people, and their prayer is not correct,” said one of the mosque trustees. The mosque trustees did not understand the message of this aya.

This attitude is common in mosques throughout the world. It is at the root of the deep suspicion many Muslims display toward peoples of other faiths, not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims with alternate traditions. In many countries Muslims following the teachings of different imams are alienated from each other, and sometimes hostile to each other. Minority Muslim populations such as the Ismailies, the Druze, and the Ahmadies feel isolated and persecuted in many Muslim countries.

 An essential part of Muslim reformation is to recognize that tolerance is not a Western idea, but it is a universal concept from the Quran. It is beneficial to everyone who practices it. Societies where people accept each other irrespective of religious beliefs are strong and dynamic, and societies where there is intolerance among faith groups are splintered and weak.

The attitude of self-righteous intolerance comes partly from feelings of insecurity about your own ways. If you have not thought about your rituals of worship deeply and are not sure why you do them, you feel threatened by the alternatives offered by others. If, on the other hand, you are sure that you are on the right way as the aya above points out, you will gladly acknowledge that other people have their own authentic ways of worshipping God. This tells us that we should focus on improving our own prayer and other rituals, so that they bring peace and fulfillment to us, rather than criticizing what others do.