Religious Pluralism
Islam and The Necessity of Religious Pluralism



By Abdulaziz Sachedina – Professor and Endowed IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University —



As I begin write this paper I need to clarify my position as an insider/outsider academician.  As an insider to Islamic tradition I face specific challenges to my inherited perspectives and allegiances.  The major challenge for me is to step outside my own community to explore more expansive vocabularies and notions of value understood by other communities.  In my initial research on the topic of freedom of religion and conscience in my earlier work on The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (2001), I found that I was confined to and even trapped in familiar and conventional concepts of Islamic juridical tradition, unable to expand the horizons of the possible and desirable interpretation that was sometimes implicit and at other times explicit in the Islamic revelation.  As an ethicist I sought relevance to rather than needed radical departure from the normative Islamic tradition.  I endeavored to seek the approval of the community by giving it reassurances about the significance of Islamic tradition rather than challenge its gross misunderstanding of the pluralistic impulse of the Islamic revelation.  Under the burden of my ties with the Muslim religious establishment and the favors I owed to my teachers in the seminaries in Iraq and Iran I constantly struggled with these debts that seemed to demand compromise of my ethical stance when it came to offer honest criticism and propose alternative readings of the scriptural sources.  I was faced with the risk of becoming insufficiently and improperly impartial to my ethical responsibilities of making an incontrovertible case for the freedom of religion in the Qur’an.

Without the recognition of religious pluralism as a principle of mutual recognition and respect among faith communities, and without affirming the identification of religious morality with moral rationality of public discourse, I believe that the community of nation-states is faced with endless violence and radical extremism propelled by uncompromising stance in the matter of exclusive religious truth and perspectival rather than objective morality.[i]  Whereas I have taken up the challenge of endorsing the universal morality that undergirds the international human rights declaration and to demonstrate that Islamic theological ethics holds enormous foundational potential to support the principles of universal moral law that governs social cooperation that are common to all human societies, the problematic of exclusivist theology that undermines this universality remains to be unpacked.  In my assessment both moral relativism, in the sense of subjective and perspectival morality that suffocates universal moral principles to assume its objective role to provide scales of judging the rightness or the wrongness of human performance, and the exclusionary theology can undo any progress in world peace with justice.

Having observed and participated in some of the international forums to construct bridges of understanding between and within different faith communities, I can assert without any reservations that the impending danger to human relations and human rights regime will come from both the moral relativist arguments as well as exclusionary theological doctrines.  Moral relativist arguments are self-defeatist in the sense that the moment cultural relativism enters human rights discourse they unwittingly endorse human rights violations as acceptable in the context of the particular cultural valuation of human dignity.  Muslim societies have suffered from certain social and cultural practices that have been justified on relative cultural grounds: “We are different!”  The faith communities, on the other hand, regard the secular human rights discourse as yet another ploy to exclude peoples of faith in formulating the terms of inclusive, universal moral discourse.  More importantly, they disapprove of the secular demand to speak about reasonable pluralism of comprehensive religious and moral doctrines that are consistent with the requirements of a social democratic understanding of a public order.  In fact, the traditionalists among them regard religious pluralism as incompatible with the uniqueness of their exclusive experience of truth.  More poignantly, they reject any canonical understanding of universal morality without first recognizing that a necessary condition for such a common moral terrain is disclosed by the revelation from God that sets the terms of the correlation between the premises of religious and secular reasons for human moral progression.

For the last forty years I have observed the emergence of interfaith dialogue, and even participated in some of them, as a way of forging intercommunal understanding and tolerance of the differences that exist between world religions.  These differences, even as they appear irreconcilable, are indispensable part of each community’s unique collective identity.  No community, however enlightened, is willing to abandon its exclusive religious identity and its claim to salvation.  Interfaith dialogue, in my opinion, has essentially remained political-academic without much impact on ordinary believers’ negative perceptions about the religious ‘other.’  In the post-911 political-religious climate, as if to underscore its irrelevance to the traditional Christians or Muslims, who recognize no grounds to comply with neutrality requirements based on “There can be several kinds of religions leading to one true God,” the dialogue has been formally appropriated for political and diplomatic ends among some nations, both with religious or secular constitutions.  The real goal of the dialogue, namely, of bringing peoples of different faiths to “a word common” among them remains far from being fulfilled.  “A Common Word” is the Qur’anic phrase that calls “peoples of the Book” to unite in the worship of One God as “a word common between us and you, so that we serve none other but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God” (Q. 3:64).  Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind immediately as examples of the countries that claim such a dialogue as part of their international efforts to promote tolerance of other religions.  Ironically, besides their formal participation in some officially organized dialogues that have continued to take place under different international sponsorships, their record of human rights violation in the matter of free exercise of religion, their patterns of discrimination, intolerance and persecution remains to be improved.

The universal morality and the inherency of human dignity that empowers individual human person to exercise the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, has not received full treatment in the traditionalist scholarship on freedom of religion in the international document that proclaims universal human rights.  In some recent works on Islam and human rights some Muslim jurists have begun to address and reconsider the juridical perspectives on apostasy and the right of a Muslim to severe his/her relationship with the community by converting to another religion.  Some of the recent rulings in the matter of apostasy have critically undertaken to reexamine the precedents that provided the justificatory documentation for the harsh treatment meted out to the apostates in the Shari>’a.  Since the death penalty is deduced on the basis of the traditions rather than the text of the Qur’an, where one’s rejection of Islamic faith after having accepted it is regarded as a sin against God, these scholars have ruled against it and, have consequently regarded the issue beyond the jurisdiction of Muslim state.[ii]  Among the leading jurists in Iran, for instance, Ayatollah Muntaz}iri>, upheld the right to freedom of religion and change of religious allegiance.[iii]   However, majority of the jurists in the Muslim world continue to affirm the traditional rulings in this matter and, at least theoretically, maintain the validity of the classical formulations regarding apostasy.[iv]

[i] Richard A. Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 6 maintains that there is no-trans-historical or extra-cultural authoritative source for our moral obligations.  A form of moral relativism is dominant in an adaptationist conception of morality, in which “morality is judged nonmorally….by its contribution to the survival, or other ultimate goals, of a society or some group within it.”  Such a view would ultimately lead to the irreconcilable differences among world communities regarding universal moral values that provide human rights norms their validity internationally.  I do concede that cultures retrieve and apply these norms in the context of their social-political experience variedly; but they cannot afford to negate them as being relative to their humanity, otherwise it will be impossible to speak about fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion.


[ii] A number of Sunni and Shi>’ite jurists have questioned the applicability of the classical rulings about death penalty, mainly because the Qur’an treats the matter as strictly between God and human being, and, hence, beyond the jurisdiction of Muslim courts over the offense.  In my earlier research I have argued against not only the death penalty as such; I have also questioned the application of the concept in Islamic juridical corpus because of the absence of the “church” that can determine the seriousness of the offence.  In addition, the problem seems to be the lack of precision in categorizing the offence as “religious,” since the precedent that provided the paradigm case for the later rulings of capital punishment in the early Muslim history was certainly a matter of rebellion against Muslim political order, and not against the religion of Islam.


[iii] For example, Ayatollah Muntaz}ari>, has ruled against capital punishment in this regard and has criticized the Iranian government for ignoring one of the fundamental articles of the Declaration about the freedom of religion.


[iv] In his article on the rights of religious minorities in the Muslim world, the prominent traditionalist Sunni jurist, Yu>suf al-Qara>d}a>wi>, while asserting the rights of the minorities to the freedom of religion, entirely ignores to deal with the right of a Muslim to convert from Islam to other recognized religions like Christianity and Judaism.  See: “H{uqu>q al-aqalliya>t ghayr muslima,” in al-Tawh}i>d, Vol. 84 (2006), pp. 13-23; Vol. 85 (2007), pp. 15-28.


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