Foundations of Peace in the Qur’an
Dr Abdullah Saeed
First of all, I would like to thank Tasmanian Peace Trust for inviting me to give the Trust’s annual peace lecture.
As a Muslim it is my belief that Islam, like other religions, holds as a core value a commitment to peace. This fundamental commitment is reflected in the many resources that support and promote peace within Islam; from scripture and historical narratives, to ethical and moral values and the very big ideas and values that occupy the thinking of most us today.
So what is peace? The term peace can mean different things to different people. For some, it might mean the absence of war or other hostilities or the restoration of public security and order. For people living in close proximity to armed conflict or in countries that lack the rule of law, this is probably the vision of peace that they cling to. For others it may mean inner peace, the peace that comes from contentment or from living a life that rises above the stresses or wants of daily life.
Another understanding of peace is ‘harmonious relations;’ the peace that comes from relationships or societies operating harmoniously, Without violent conflict. This is the notion that I want to focus on today.
This kind of peace is particularly important in our era. The world is becoming a ‘global village’ where personal contact between people of different religious and cultural affiliations is more common than it ‘has been in the past. We are no longer separated from people of other faiths by distance or culture or language. Technology, the accessibility and affordability of long distance travel and migration have brought people together, making our societies, particularly in the West, a melting pot of different faiths and traditions.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith emphasised:
“The religious life of mankind from now on, if it is to be lived at all, will be lived in a context of religious pluralism. This is true for all of us: not only ‘mankind’ in general on an abstract level, but for you and me as individual persons. No longer are people of other persuasions peripheral or distant, the idle curiosities of travellers’ tales. ”
Australia’s religious composition
So where does Australia fit into this context? Australia too is a religiously diverse country; perhaps, one of the most pluralist in the world. According to the most recent census data Christianity is still the largest religious tradition in Australia, with Christians of various denominations making up approximately 64 percent of the population. Buddhists are the second largest religious group in Australia, comprising about 2 percent of the population, followed by Muslims and Hindus and then other traditions and belief systems. Approximately 19 percent of Australians now declare no religious affliation.
If We compare these statistics to past figures, however, some trends are emerging. While Christianity remains the dominant religion in Australia, its numbers appear to be decreasing. On the other hand non-Christian religions are growing at a faster rate.
Internal tensions and divisions within major religions also remain strong, creating further diversity. Within Christianity smaller, non- mainstream denominations seem to be gaining more followers, for example Pentecostal churches, in contrast to more mainstream trends. The proportion of Australians declaring no religious affiliation is also increasing.
What these trends seem to be saying is that the religious makeup of Australia is still rapidly changing. They also seem to suggest that religious diversity is here to stay.
Muslims in Australia
Muslims have been a part of Australia’s religious landscape for more than 100 years. Historical records suggest that there were only a few hundred Muslim Australians in the 1900s, but that number has grown substantially. There are approximately 400,000 Muslim Australians today. What this number does not reveal, however, is the incredible diversity that exists among Muslims.
The majority of Muslims are first generation migrants. Muslim Australians come from more than 80 different countries, bringing with them their own ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences. There are Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Australia and different traditions and schools of thought within these broad categories. Some Muslims could be described as ultra conservative in religious matters, while others are liberal and progressive. Only thirty-six percent of Muslim Australians were born in Australia, some of whom are converts from Anglo-Saxon or other backgrounds. While most Muslims may be said to be working class, others are very affluent. This overall diversity makes it difficult to describe Muslim Australians as a single community.
For some Muslims the Australian context is challenging. They function as a small minority in a secular context, within a predominantly Christian society. While some may find it dif?cult to function as a minority, most Muslims seem to be functioning perfectly well in this environment, interacting with people of other faiths, contributing to society and living harmoniously with others.
Australian responses towards the ‘Other’ (including the religious ‘other’) have been varied. They range from exclusion, 4 characterised by fear, hostility and intolerance from the dominant religion; to pressure to assimilate and become part of the dominant religion; tolerance, characterised by reluctant acceptance but with obstacles to this presented under various guises; and most recently, pluralism, showing a commitment to engage in the interests of a better society. This attitude is reflected in more recent initiatives such as interfaith dialogue and the cross—cultural support networks that encourage genuine collaboration between people of different religions and emphasise their common humanity and citizenship.
Concepts of diversity and pluralism
So where does Australia’s religious diversity take us and how can we work towards peace? I think it is important firstly to recognise that the concepts of religious diversity and pluralism are not synonymous.
The concept of diversity acknowledges that a multitude of different religions are present within a given society; that religious traditions have their own followers and institutions and that these exist side by side in the community. However, recognising this fact does not necessarily lead to engagement with or between religious communities. Of course, tolerance of other faiths is appropriate but merely acknowledging the presence of other religions is not an adequate basis for dealing with our diverse and inter-dependent reality. In fact, it may just encourage religious ghettos, where people of different religious communities have little contact with one another.
Pluralism, on the other hand, involves actively seeking understanding despite differences. It does not mean watering down one’s religious beliefs or relinquishing one’s faith or traditions to reach the lowest common denominator. Pluralism ensures that differences are maintained but always in relationship to one another. It invites all people to engage with each other, despite their differences, and to Work together towards a civil, fair and just society where being a human being is the key emphasis. It facilitates the creation of a harmonious society by acknowledging difference, rather than hiding it, and, allows differences to coexist alongside each other on a foundation of mutual respect.
How do Muslims see their relationship with the religious other?
It is my view that religious pluralism (and the peace that derives from this) can only be achieved by having an inclusive view of the religious other. When I use the word ‘inclusive’ or ‘inclusivist’ I am using this term in a very specific way. I mean an attitude of openness towards people of other faiths, that recognises: the equality of all human beings as creations of God, regardless of their religious beliefs; the mutuality and interdependency of all people; that all human beings have access to God and Truth; and the need to be humble so that claims of the superiority of one‘s faith does not lead to discrimination or the dehumanising of others. ‘
Faiths with an inclusive view of the religious ‘other’ can play an important role in establishing peace in the world, peace between communities and peace between individuals. In my view, encouraging inclusivism gives a better chance for peace in the domain of religion.
Perhaps, as I describe what it means to have an inclusive view of the religious other, there might be some doubt in your minds that Muslims can relate to people of other faiths in this way. For many people living in the West and indeed in Australia, these are not notions that are easily associated with Islam. In fact, the opposite is often true — many people see Islam as a religion that contributes to intolerance and disharmony. I think there are a number of reasons why this is the case.
Historically, in the West, Islam has often been portrayed as intolerant and violent. The September 11 attacks, London and Bali bombings and other recent terrorist activities have helped to cement this perception of Muslims and of Islam in people’s minds. The media is also often quick to associate Muslims with fanaticism, killing, suicide bombing and destruction. Although there are ‘Muslims’ who do perpetrate these activities under the guise of 6 Islam, reports of attacks and conflict involving Muslims is rarely counterbalanced by stories about mainstream Muslim views, practices and beliefs. This helps to feed the distortion that all or most Muslims are not peaceful or are violent. In Australia there have also been a few politicians who play upon this view of Islam and Muslims for their own political ends; again, failing to highlight the views and actions of the majority of Muslim Australians.
Foundations for Peace in Islam
Despite these misperceptions, I would like to argue that there is a strong foundation for inclusivity and for peace in Islam. There is historical evidence that Muslims have peacefully coexisted with people of other faiths in much of the Muslim world. Islam itself is based on the idea of submission to the One God who is merciful and compassionate. Islam emphasises the same message about God that has been conveyed throughout human history. It also sees all human beings as having come from the same family, as children of Adam and Eve. With respect to other religions, Islam recognises the ‘People of the Book’ —Jews and Christians – as having special status, and respects their scriptures. Islam also emphasises the importance of peace in everyday life.
I would like to go into each of these points in more detail.
Since the early centuries of Islam, in much of the Muslim world, Muslims have managed to live harmoniously alongside people of other faiths. One of the clearest examples of this commitment can be seen in the so-called ‘Constitution of Medina’. After Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina in 622 CE and established the first Muslim community there, one of his first acts was to set down the Constitution of Medina, an agreement between the Muslims and people of other faiths there including Jews. This agreement refers to the inhabitants of Medina as a ‘community’ and emphasises that no distinction be made between the Muslims and others, particularly when it came to defending the community. It also stresses that all persons were to be treated equally.
Although this agreement cannot necessarily be equated to modern understandings of equal citizenship, it is evidence from the early days of Islam of the concern for and support of inclusivity and harmony between religious communities.
I would also argue that Islam in its very nature is also conducive to peace. The faith involves submission to the One, Merciful and Compassionate God. The God whom Muslims worship is compassionate and merciful — these are His most important attributes. Muslims are reminded of this each day as they pray and repeat the first verse of the Qur’an, ‘In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful…’
Muslims also believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all people, not just Muslims. The Qur’an emphasises that God is the God of all people and that Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews. This is a strong foundation for inclusivity and mutual respect between these religions.
The Qur’an also emphasises that although different prophets were sent to different peoples at different times, they each brought essentially same message about the One God. In this way G0d’s message was never exclusive. God has provided guidance to all people on earth, not just to a select few. Based on this Islam recognises and respects the prophets, teachers, scriptures and teachings that came before Prophet Muhammad. This is the reason why the Qur’an often refers to the prophets that came before Muhammad as ‘muslims’, from Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jesus (peace be upon them).
Prophet Muhammad explained his mission in this way, as recorded in one of his traditions:
“The comparison between me and the preceding prophets is similar to a group of people who took part in building a house and completed it but for/an empty space for one block or brick. Onlookers admired it and said in astonishment, ‘What a beautiful mansion, if it were not for the place of the missing brick.’ I have been this brick and I am the last or the seal of the prophets. ”
The Qur’an also emphasises that all human beings come from the same family:
O people, observe your Lord; the One who created you from one being, and created from it its mate, then spread from the two many men and women..(4:1)
God created human beings in the form of ‘different tribes’ so that they may know each other. When the Qur’an mentions difference here, it is considered a marker of identity. In Islamic tradition this difference is seen as purposeful and planned. The Qur’an again says: .
O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognize one another. The best among you in the sight of God is the most righteous. God is Omniscient, Cognizant. (49:13)
Related to this is the issue of human dignity. In another verse, reminding us of human beings’ essential dignity, the Qur’ an says:
We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favoured them far above most of our creations. (17:70)
Another fundamental Qur’anic idea is that God has vested in all of humanity a touch of the Divine spirit and made the human being a vicegerent of God on earth. It says,
Remember, when your lord said to the angels: ‘I have to place a vicegerent on earth,’ they [the angels] said: ‘Will you place one there who will create disorder and shed blood, while we invoke and sanctify your name? And God said: ‘I know what you do not know’ (2: 30).
The Qur’an also recognises the People of the Book. Collectively, Jews and Christians are given the honorific title of ‘People of the Book’ or ahl al-kitab in Arabic. The Qur’an encourages Muslims and the ‘People of the Book’ to live together in peace because they share a belief in the same God. It specifically says, ‘Our God and your God is one’ (29:46).
According to their unique status, the ‘People of the Book’ were recognised as a special category of citizens within the early (or pre- modern) Muslim states. This ensured that their rights were protected by the state: that they were exempt from participating in military activities; they had freedom to practice their religion and they could govern their lives according to their religious and legal norms. Importantly they were also given the freedom to maintain their religious traditions without state interference.
The Qur’an also recognises the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Qur’an has an attitude of the utmost respect and reverence for the Torah and the Gospels. In no place does it make disparaging remarks about these scriptures. It refers to them as scriptures that have come from God.
The Qur’an particularly encourages Muslims to respect the ‘People of the Book,’. For example, it emphasises that there are Christians who are upright, righteous and do good works:
‘Not all of them are alike: Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand [for the right]: They rehearse the Signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration. They believe in Allah and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten [in emulation] in [all] good works: They are in the ranks of the righteous. (3:113-116)
Finally, Islam provides reminders for Muslims of the importance of peace in day to day life. For example, the most common greeting among Muslims is assalamu alaykum, which means ‘peace be with you’. This greeting is repeated by Muslims hundreds of millions of times each day right across the globe.
Another example is, when a Muslim begins to do anything, even the most mundane thing, usually he or she will say, in Arabic ‘I begin this In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.’ Again, this affirmation and reminder of God’s essential characteristics is stated by Muslims hundreds of millions of times a day. God is also named ‘Peace’ or the ‘Giver of Peace.’
If it is the case that Islamic tradition has such a strong foundation for peace and inclusivity, the natural question to ask is why does there appear to be so much hatred linked to Islam and Muslims, particularly today.
I would argue it is not because of Islam’s scripture, the foundation of the religion or Islamic history. As I have suggested, there is strong support in each of these for inclusivity and peaceful relationship with people of other faiths. Perhaps one reason is related to how key Islamic texts are interpreted. The lack of a central authority in Islam, like the Pope, and the freedom Islam gives Muslims to interpret their scriptures and fonn reasoned opinion, means that there is no single view of the religious ‘other.’ Another reason is that negative, less inclusive views of other faiths have also crept into Islamic tradition over the course of history. To some extent these perspectives became embedded in Islamic thought and left behind a legacy that was quite contrary to the original teachings and principles of Islam.
More recently, the legacy of colonialism and the economic and political inferiority that many Muslims experienced in light of the dominance of the West has caused some Islamic movements to re- assert their Islamic identity in a way that distances them from anything associated with the West, including its Christian heritage. This too has contributed to some Muslims’ exclusivist perspectives towards other faiths.
However, against the views of ‘exclusivist’ Muslims, there are many Muslims who strongly support inclusivity. For these Muslims it is important to return back to what the Qur’an actually teaches about other faiths and the peaceful principles that underlie the message of Islam. When faced with teachings or perspectives that are exclusive, inclusivists strongly reject these views. In fact they see peaceful relations as a religious obligation for Muslims. In light of this they are bringing into Islamic thought some new and interesting interpretations and perspectives.
Exclusivism is an obstacle to peace and peaceful relations among people. The more we can encourage inclusivism in our faiths, the more religions will become conducive to peace. Among Muslims, the interesting, new interpretations that are emerging in Islamic thought are already bearing fruit. They are helping to marginalise exclusive attitudes and practices and bringing more and more Muslims back to the inclusive teachings of the Qur’an. This trend can only have benefits for peace.
An inclusive view of the world does not mean that all religious traditions need to become replicas of each other. They will and must retain their own unique characteristics. But inclusivism is likely to lead to the rethinking of the most extreme or exclusive positions for the sake of peace and harmony. This process will help to bring people of all faiths together on a common platform, joining people together as human beings first and foremost, before they are labelled Muslim, Jew, Christian or any other.
About the Author
Abdullah Saeed is Professor of Arab & Islamic Studies and Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Originally from the Maldives, he has studied in Saudi Arabia and Australia. His MA and PhD at the University of Melbourne.
He is a Fellow of Australian Academy of Humanities and has written numerous books and articles on topics connected with Islam. He is also a member of numerous inter-faith dialogue groups.