Much of the world is in dire need of a history lesson. The topic? Tolerance. A good place to start is Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthal’s 1927 lecture Tolerance In Islam.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthal was an Englishman, Orientalist and Muslim, whose English translation of the Holy Qur’an was first published in 1930. He traveled extensively in Muslim countries, including Syria, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Arabia, and India. In 1927, he gave eight lectures at the bequest of The Committee of Madras Lectures on Islam. His lecture on tolerance is instructive today, although written over eighty years ago.
One of the commonest charges brought against Islam historically, and as a religion, by Western writers is that it is intolerant. This is turning the tables with a vengeance when one remembers various facts…
He then takes his audience on a historical journey from the time of the Prophet, may Allaah bless him and grant him peace, to his present, comparing Islam’s teachings on tolerance and practice primarily with Christian beliefs and practices. For example, he reminds us that the Prophet (saas) had allies among the pagans, even after Islam’s triumph in Arabia. He discusses when Khalif Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) entered Jerusalem after its conquest. Although Christian officials urged him to make salah in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he refused—concerned that uninformed Muslims would someday turn the church into a masjid because he prayed there. He mentions the thriving religious dialogue in Muslim Spain and how throughout history non-Muslims have sought protection in Muslim nations, most notably during the Crusades.
Pickthal provides many other examples of Islamic tolerance and Christian intolerance, yet Muslims should be careful not to feel so superior— he also provides examples where Muslims have strayed from Islamic teachings in this regard. And although one may not agree with all of his views or his historical perspective, Pickthal’s insights are worth considering. He states,
It was not until the Western nations broke away from their religious law* that they became more tolerant; and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidence of the highest culture.
He mentions two ayat in the Qur’an in particular:
Allah. There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory). (2:255)
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. (2:256)
Where there is that realization of the majesty and dominion of Allaah (swt), there is no compulsion in religion. Men choose their path—allegiance or opposition—and it is sufficient punishment for those who oppose that they draw further and further away from the light of truth.
What Muslims do not generally consider is that this law applies to our own community just as much as to the folk outside, the laws of Allaah being universal; and that intolerance of Muslims for other men’s opinions and beliefs is evidence that they themselves have, at the moment, forgotten the vision of the majesty and mercy of Allaah which the Qur’an presents to them.
Recently there appears to be an escalating and more vocal level of intolerance against Muslims. Our beliefs and values are misrepresented and maligned. But even worse, many of us do not understand our own teachings on tolerance. This is all the more troubling because Allaah (swt) intended our lives to be an example for others, just as our beloved Prophet (saas) sets the example to us:
Thus We have made you a just nation, that you be witnesses over mankind and the Messenger be a witness over you. (2:143)
Islam has much to offer the world and this includes its beautiful teachings on tolerance. The end of Ramadan should not be an end to coming closer to the Qu’ran. It should be a renewed beginning of living it.
* This refers to religious interpretation and corruption of religious law and not the law as Divinely revealed.