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Ali Dere {*}

How Much Islam Does Pluralism Stand?

A Relationship of Tension from Muslim View

From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 4/2007, P. 193-196
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Today the problem of pluralism particularly arises in view of religion. How are the relations to other religions to be arranged, how those of the religions among themselves? How does Islam position itself in a pluralistic society? In the following we document the perspective of a Muslim theologian.


According to the Koran man is enabled by God himself to be aware of its creator (Sura 33.72). This capability is really a vocation. It is implanted into the human being and thus source of its turn to God. It is imparted by the knowledge of God and the ability to distinguish good from evil. The Koran speaks of fitrat allah or halk allah (God's gift of creation) and of dinul kayyim (genuine, unalterable religion) (Sura 30,30; 9,36). But the capability is also interpreted as an act of the intellect, an act of understanding and is described with the terms marife, tevhid and hudu´ (knowledge and profession of God as the One; to devote oneself to God).

Despite this creation gift man is not left to itself, but God chooses envoys who announce the revealed will of God, in order to call to the genuine religion, to the religion of the creation gift. In this call the outward directed sides of religion are found: the contents of faith (itikad), the law schools (madhhab), finally the different forms of realization (scharia) see Hanifi Özcan, Maturidi `de Dini Çogulculuk, Istanbul 1995, 36f.). This divine call is repeated in view of the changing circumstances or when man does not listen to the original call, and leads to Mohammed's mission. Hence Islam understands itself not as a new religion, but as a continuation of the genuine, unalterable religion dinul-kayyim. It points out to the religions in its surroundings the common core,



but also deviations from it: "Say: You people of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you, that we do serve Allah alone and do not put someone with him, and that we do not amongst ourselves take ourselves as Lords instead of Allah" (Sura 3.64).

Beyond that differences concerning the methods of realization (scharia) are regarded as natural. In its relation to other religions differences in the realization are for Islam a simply given reality. Differences concerning the core will, according to the Koran, be settled in the other world: "And we have sent down to you the writing with the truth that it confirmed what existed before it and gave certainty about it. Decide now between what Allah has sent down, and do not follow their personal inclinations - in deviation from what has come to you from the truth! - For every one of you we have determined customs of their own [scharia] and a way [of their own]. And if Allah had wanted, he would have made you one community only. But he wanted to put you to the test by what he gave you. Compete now for the good things! All of you will once return to Allah. And then he will bring you tidings of what you were at variance over." (Sura 5.48).

The Koran not only points to the different religions but also to the possibility of disbelief, when it says for instance: "And if your Lord wanted, all of those who are on earth would become believers. Is it now you who want to force human beings to believe?" (Sura 10.99). Faith can be explained to the disbeliever, but s/he may not be forced to anything. The decision on him/her is taken by God alone (see Sura 88.21-26).

Nevertheless also Islam - like many other religions - of course lays claim to validity and truth. But this claim does not mean rejection of other religions; it presupposes the acceptance of their difference. That has also been realized in the Muslim community. To mention only one example: There are in the Islamic legal literature discussions about the possibility of economic unions or partnerships between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. The scholars in this question in principle have decided for the possibility of partnerships, excluded is the trade with goods which are forbidden for religious reasons, as for instance alcohol, pork etc.

In addition systematic considerations about the knowledge and the scientific-critical view of other religions can be found already early in the Islamic theology. Think only of Ibn Hazm ( 456/1064), whose writings belong to the forerunners of the comparative history of religion (see Ghulam Haider Aasi, Muslim Understanding of Other Religions. A Study on Ibn Hazm's Kitab al-Fasl Fi-Milal wa al-Ahwa wa al-Nihal, Neu Delhi 2004).


Queries to Pluralism

Hence in the Islamic tradition we are concerned with a pluralism that otherwise than the present pluralism debate - understands religious variety as the impartial acceptance of the possibility and actual existence of different religions, different religious approaches to and different forms of religiousness.

But to what extent can Islam fit into the present pluralism? How does Islam, knowing about the wide variety of religious convictions, position itself in view of the challenge of today's pluralism? It is true before some questions arise.

To think pluralism could be supported without further ado, i.e. without examination, would be much too superficial a viewpoint to become the starting point of a debate about Islam and pluralism. Because merely philosophically seen pluralism is marked with a blemish it cannot ignore without abolishing itself. Pluralism demands the rejection of any claim to absolute truth, but at the same time it claims this for itself. The demand to recognize plurality is an absolute one. One is not allowed to approach in the plural the question of the validity of plurality.

But when we use the verb "be allowed" we are no longer on a mere cognitive level, but at least on an ethical, if not political one. Hence the decision in favour of pluralism does not follow the reason-led logic but remains ethical or political.

Anyway the concept of 'pluralism' only in the political context, as political term, gains significance for our everyday life. The elaboration of a cultural, religious plurality as concept in the end follows political dimensions, which will always adhere to this concept.



But what else does the political-ethical concept of 'pluralism' mean but to accept the respective validity of one's vis-à-vis's claims? And are not enclosed into these claims also the claims to absolute truth, as they are made by religions, but also by law and politics? Is the pluralism of claims to absolute truth - that is in its most problematic form - not simply only the acknowledgment that other people can have other universal claims, and consequently only the acknowledgment that there are different religions, different ways of politics, of jurisprudence?

If all this is to be answered in the affirmative, the question about Islam and pluralism remains idle, since Islam does certainly recognize other religions as such - also in their claims to truth. What is more, the Islamic tradition developed rules for the dealing with members of other religions. These rules became even politically effective in history. A jurisprudence has been created that opened to those of different faith not only free areas to realize their religion but made it also possible for them to participate in the social life.

Hence the political (or ethical) decision for pluralism does not directly call religion and not at all Islam into question but questions itself. Pluralism is led by fear when it faces the challenge Islam: It is the simple fear that Islam could raise claims which could not be integrated into pluralism. Hence it is the fear that Islam could set standards which question pluralism. But this would be the fear about one's own claim to absolute truth, and pluralism would be imprisoned in its essential inconsistency.

Without going into detail with this debate leading to philosophical questions, be stated first that Islam does not at all call pluralism as such into question - at least no more than any other conception between right and wrong - and secondly that pluralism need not see any danger in Islam neither as philosophical opinion nor as ethical demand.


Muslims Too Are to Withstand the Pressure of a Political Movement

Anyway, with the question about Islam and pluralism we are mostly on a merely political - and no longer philosophical or ethical - level. Then it is no longer about the question whether Islam is compatible with pluralism and pluralism with Islam, but only whether the Muslims in Germany, in Europe are able and ready to recognize plural ways of life and whether people in Germany or other states of Europe accept that measure of plurality, in order to live together with Muslims.

The latter even seems to be the actual question that hides behind the preceding ones. The reservations come to the fore when one is to live together with people who actually believe differently and would like to live their faith. That these doubts are fed to a large part by world politics and global developments is out of the question. But thereby Islam is often noticed less as religion but as a political system, or at least as a religion with a strict vote for a type of state.

The fact that Islam does not predetermine such a vote is just shown by Turkey's example, a country with predominantly Muslim population and a secular type of state. But demands for a certain type of state laid down by religion are neither to be found in the historical works of Muslim authors and scholars about political topics. To be read are only demands how the existing political system is - according to ethical and other standards - to be led more justly. A demand that might not be foreign to European political works in history and up to the present day.

Hence the conception of a "Challenge Islam" is based on a political misinterpretation of what Islam is supposed to be. One rightly objects that this interpretation is justified by the political claims and over-claims of Islamic parties, or better groupings that pretend to be Islamic. This politicization of Islam is a phenomenon of the last century. Not only pluralism has its problems with it, also Islam and the Muslims must withstand the pressure of a political movement that abuses Islam for its political and economic aims.

But it is known that precisely in Europe the members of this kind of groupings - as much as they are blown up by the media - make only a small portion of less than one per cent of the Muslim population. The predominant majority however understands Islam not as political vote but as religion, which it would like to live. That this religion dictates values to the faithful which differ only little from the values by which for instance democracy is distinguished, need not even be discussed.

So at the end the question remains whether people in Europe can live together with people of other religions in Europe. And this question is at best a political one, mostly however a question of the ordinary living together. For a pluralistic living together cannot only mean a next to each other of different ways of life. It is out of the question that different ways of life - when they exist at the same time and next to each other - must turn into one another. Hence pluralism does not mean the acceptance of other ways of life beside my environment, but their presence in my environment.



This for Muslims in Germany includes the awareness that one is part of a certain reality which must be not outside world but living space into which one therefore acts and must act, in which one shares, in the sense of taking part in structuring it. For the social majority - a problematic concept - this means that the different nature of this participation, for instance the building of a mosque at central places, must not trigger fears and inhibitions. Hence it becomes apparent that pluralism means a dynamic merging, whereby the respective other person is not recognized as a different person but as a neighbour, and his/her participation in the various systems of the society is wanted and promoted.

When we demand this, the social participation cannot be discussed only in view of religion or of the relation between religion and politics, but it must include all areas of social life, for instance upbringing, education, economy, law etc.. A cultural participation in the society presupposes - or is at least accompanied by - the participation within the educational sphere, in the systems of law and economy.

With it the question of pluralism already loses its fabricated relation to Islam. Muslims live in Germany still rather in the lower social class and that above all is why they get a less good training. From it follows a vicious circle that excludes them from many areas of the society. It is true statistics often think they had to attribute any feature of social sealing off to cultural and religious characteristics, and that is up to this day to a large extent uncritically accepted by the technical literature: But the problem of the Muslims' disintegration had rather to be understood as problem of the social stratum. If for instance statistics of the degrees of young Muslims compared with those of Germans also include the per capita income, alleged disparities are cancelled out.

Consequently a more complex examination of the question "Muslims in Germany" is to be pleaded for and a de-politicized examination of the questions about religiousness. This applies to all sides: Muslims must not use their religion as political instrument, but Islam too must not become the source of friction for politics. When for instance it is about questions of pluralism, living together, integration, democracy Islam as well as other religions cannot be the level one takes exception to.

To be inquired are those people who are possibly religious, but with regard to the questions mentioned are - what is much more important - people of a particular social class, with a particular educational background, a particular family structure etc.. That the latter possibly also result from their religious ideas is not sufficient an argument to give priority to these ideas.


    {*} Ali Dere in 1994 attained a doctorate at the University of Göttingen in oriental studies and since 1999 has been teaching as professor for Hadith sciences at the University of Ankara. He belongs to a group of Turkish reform theologians, which has become known under the name "Ankara School". At present he is departmental manager for external relations of the committee for religious affairs (Diyanet) and as such also responsible for the dispatch of Imams to Western Europe. The text is the revised version of a lecture held by Dere in the Academy of the Diocese Rottenburg-Stuttgart.


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