May 2023
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A. Shihab: The Qur’an Recognizes Plurality

We bear great responsibility to remind our selves and others that Islam is not the only religion of peace, since peace is a universal religion. Historically, Islam is the last phase of a long development of revelation in history. That the prophet of Islam regarded his message to be consonant with and complementary to those of Torah and Gospel is clear from the frequent references in the Qur'an to the witness of the People of the Book to its own truth and authenticity. The Qur’an, being the main source of Islamic spirituality, repeatedly urges Muslims to reflect on its revelation. Yet the Qur’an is not meant to be simply an object of contemplation but a divinely revealed scripture whose worldview is meant to be pondered, comprehended, and implemented in society. “Will they not ponder the Qur’an, for had it been from other than God they would have found in it much discrepancy?“

The Qur’an presents itself as an ultimate source of moral guidance and social harmony among its adherents and between them and other scripture-based faith communities. The Qur’an, as we observe throughout its verses, speaks not about religions but about religious people. It must therefore be emphasized that the Qur’an recognizes the plurality of religious communities and the essential validity of their beliefs. While Jews and Christians are mentioned as “People of the Book,” they are mentioned along with other faith communities. The Islamic attitude towards the People of the Book was, from the start, one of both accommodation and confrontation. It must be added here that the Qur’an at times presents these two aspects in the same breath.

Confrontation did not, generally speaking, revolve around political or social issues, but rather strictly theological issues. However, the ideal relation envisioned by the Qur’an between Muslim and Christians is not only one of accommodation and coexistence, but of amity and mutual respect. In addition, the Qur’an recognizes the good intentions of the Christians even where it considers their actions to be in error. A clear example of this is the assertion that Christians have themselves invented monasticism, desiring by this God’s good pleasure. (57:27) This Qur’anic acceptance of difference and acknowledgement of its value is the clearest sign of tolerance and accommodation.

This call of mutual acceptance is based on the Qur’anic notion of the unity of scriptures. The Qur’an regards both the Torah and the Gospel as sources of guidance and light. The Qur’an, far more than Muslims have ever done, accepts the pluralism of religions and affirms the unity of faith. The only common elements it insists on are sincere faith in God and works of righteousness. In a rare instance where a verse occurs twice almost verbatim, it affirms this basic principle. (2:62 and 5:69)

In fact, Islam and Christianity as religions of the Book have far more in common than the theologians of either tradition have been willing to recognize or admit.

Against our thesis of religious harmony, it may be argued that the Qur’an also contains verses that foster disunity and discord. Such statements as: “O you who have faith, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies” (awliya). and “ Neither the Jews and the Christians would be pleased with you (Muhammad) unless you follow their religion.”

This ambivalence in the Qur’anic attitude is largely due, we believe, to particular circumstances and specific political problems between Muslims and the People of the Book. These verses should not in any way be used to negate the positive verses, which are in any case more numerous and more emphatic in their insistence on mutual recognition and fair dialogue between Muslims and the People of the Book.

It must be stressed, therefore, that the pursuit of interreligious dialogue and harmony should not be simply an academic one, but it should go beyond. We must be aware that we live in a religiously, culturally and ideologically pluralistic world that we can either share or destroy. We must, therefore, be selective in our choices of sacred texts and concepts, and we should give preference to those that encourage greater understanding and cooperation among the people of different faiths and ideologies. This need is specially pressing for the followers of such world religions as Christianity and Islam. Religious leaders should fully accept the charge of being highly selective in our use of religious texts to this noble end.

Furthermore, we should reflect upon the fact that by origin humankind was a single people or nation. God could have kept us all alike, monolithic. But in his wisdom he grants us diversity and plurality, not only in any given time but also throughout the ages. This diversity of many kinds tests our capacity as well as our willingness to establish harmony in difference and constructive cooperation in diversity. Still more, the Qur’an accentuates the need for unity and togetherness in our diversity as it says: “To each among you We described a Law and an Open Way. If God had so willed He would have made you a single People, but his plan is strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah. It is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.”

In conclusion, the Qur’an presents to the three Peoples of the Book a challenge and a promise. The challenge is for all of them to live by the moral and spiritual dictates of the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an. The promise is that if they do so, both the sky and earth would freely bestow on them their blessings; “were they to abide by the Torah, the Gospel and that which was sent down to them from their Lord, they would have provisions from above them and from beneath their feet” (5:66).

Can Jews, Christians and Muslims hear the voice of God to each in their own language? This is indeed the real challenge of the hour.


[Source: Islamic Perspectives on Peace. Tarrytown, NY: Universal Peace Federation, 2006.]