In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grac
Islam Beyond Tolerance
Since the abominable attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States of America Muslims have been told time and again that their task as global citizens is to increase tolerance towards people of other religions and to achieve more tolerant societies.
Some Muslim scholars have responded positively to this challenge and have emphasized the great strands of tolerance and coexistence in Islam and Muslim history.
In my view, however, the entire project of articulating an Islamic validation of the Western concept of tolerance is not all that helpful in promoting mutual understanding and overcoming the problem of extremism.
I propose an alternative vision for interreligious peacebuilding which I would like to call Ta’aruf: Beyond Tolerance i.e. celebrating cultural, religious and other forms of diversity through recognition and affirmation of each other through intimate knowledge, and not mere toleration.
It is instructive to note that there is no precise Islamic equivalent to the English term “tolerance”.
In fact its linguistic equivalent tasamuh, and its verbal derivatives samaha, are not found in the Qur’an.
The fact that there is no linguistic equivalent for the term “tolerance” does not however imply that Islam does not accept the existence of other religions.
On the contrary, the Qur’an stresses that the differences in beliefs, views and ideas of humankind is not incidental and negative but represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence. A denial of the right of others to hold beliefs and views that are different and incompatible to one’s own is tantamount to a denial of God himself.
Among the verses of the Qur’an that supports such a contention is the following verse 99 from Surah al-Tawbah, chapter 10.
“If your Lord had so desired, all the people on the earth would surely have come to believe, all of them; do you then think, that you could compel people to believe?”
The above verse establishes the principle of freedom of belief and thought in Islam.
This Qur’anic concept of seeing religious differences as an expression of the will of God is more vital than that of merely tolerating differences in religious traditions.
We don’t want to merely “tolerate” our fellow human beings, but rather to engage them at the deepest level of what makes us human, through both our phenomenal commonality and our dazzling cultural and religious differences.
But is there an alternative and higher vision of intercultural and interreligious harmony that goes beyond the limitations of the idea of “tolerance”?
I believe that such an alternative vision does indeed exist in all religious traditions.
From the Islamic perspective I would like to offer the Qur’anic concept of ta`aruf, which means getting to know “the other,” or, as I have interpreted it, embracing the other as an extension of oneself.
This idea is eloquently captured in Sura al-Hujurat, Chapter 49, Verse 13, of the Qur’an:
“O Humankind! We have created you of a male and a female, and fashioned you into tribes and families that you may know each other/recognize each other [ta’aruf] (not despise each other); surely, the most honorable of you with God is the best in conduct. Lo! God is Knower, Aware.
The above verse enjoins human beings to celebrate gender, cultural, and other forms of diversity through ta’aruf/recognition/affirmation of each other through intimate knowledge, and not mere toleration.
Through this verse the Qur’an teaches that differences among humankind are not incidental and negative but rather that human diversity represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence.
The Qur’anic concept of ta’aruf is an alternative vision to that of the tolerance paradigm and represents for me not how much I can tolerate the other but rather the extent to which I am able to embrace “the other” as an extension of myself.
Intimately getting to know one another is a pathway to embracing the other as an extension of the self, whether they may be Jew, Christian, or of no faith.
The challenge for Muslims in South Africa and elsewhere is to amplify this Qur’anic teaching on ta`aruf and to work hard to reestablish this ancient core ethic as an integral part of contemporary Muslim culture and endeavor.
I have proposed that the Qur’anic concept of ta’aruf is an alternative vision to that of the tolerance paradigm and represents for me the litmus test of good religion: not how much I can tolerate the other but rather the extent to which I am able to embrace “the other” as an extension of myself.
Such an alternative vision of ta’aruf is also supported in the second most sacred source of Islamic guidance after the Qur’an, the hadith literature, commonly called the Prophetic traditions. Imam Bukhari (d.870 ce) and Imam Muslim (d.865 ce) compiled two of the most widely respected and authoritative compendia of these traditions. These two works, named after their compilers, are sometimes referred to as the sahihayn, the “two most authentic” canons of hadith. They contain many overlapping reports.
In one shared report, the companion Jabir bin 'Abdullah, recalls the following incident:
Once a funeral procession passed in front of us.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) stood up; we stood up too.
We said, “O Prophet of God! This is the funeral procession of a Jew!"
He answered, "Is it not a living being (soul)?
Whenever you see a funeral procession, you should stand up."
Interestingly some Muslims prefer to translate the latter part of this prophetic tradition as “Was he not a human being?”
There is a profound implication in the literal words of the tradition. They remind Muslims that Jews too have souls that were breathed into them at birth by God.
This interpretation resonates well with the Qur’anic verse 9 of Surah Al-Sajdah that:
[God] fashioned [the human being] in due proportion, and breathed into him something of His spirit (min ruhi). And he endowed you with [the faculties of] hearing and sight and feeling [and understanding]: little thanks do you give!”
This well-known Qur’anic injunction illuminates the egalitarian ethic contained in the prophetic tradition we have identified.
This powerful ethic obliges Muslims not merely to tolerate but to honor the dignity of all human beings, and to look upon each and every human being—whether he or she is a Jew, an atheist, or an adherent of an extra-scriptural religion—as carrying within her, within him, a part of God.
This message is central to the Muslim view of humanity: every human life, Muslim or non-Muslim, has exactly the same intrinsic worth, because as the Qur’an teaches us, each one of us has the breath our God breathed into our being.
This is how I understand the Islamic paradigm of ta’aruf ; intimately getting to know one another is a pathway to embracing the other as an extension of the self, whether they may be Jew, Christian, or of no faith. I believe that such an alternative vision can make a major contribution to a more peaceful and just world. Let us during this special jumuah time supplicate and ask God, the Pardoner, who loves to Pardon, to forgive us our trespasses, to bless our attendance at this jumu`ah service and to shower us with His infinite mercy and compassion.
Our Lord! Pardon us and our parents and Be kind and bestow Thy compassion upon our parents as they cherished, nurtured and showed us with compassion in childhood.
O God of all Cultures and all humans, look with compassion on the whole human family; fill our hearts and minds with passion and determination to wipe out, ignorance, racism, xenophobia and hatred. O Lord of Compassion Reunite our hearts in bonds of love and compassion; and make us your instruments to deliver your divine mercy and compassion.