Let us cherish unity in diversity

October 12, 2014

Instead of compulsory uniformity, nurturing toleration and diversity at homes and educational institutes is imperative to end religious strife

Let us cherish unity in diversity

In our religiously conservative society, compulsory uniformity is at the heart of religious strife in Pakistan. Islam enshrines diversity though Muslims defy it. The Western path out of sectarian strife was more of toleration than diversity. Human life thrives on toleration and diversity. Which direction is Pakistan heading towards -- diversity or toleration -- is an important question to answer.

Toleration is to respect the difference though not approving it. Diversity is conceding to and appreciating the fact that the path to reality and truth is diverse. Religious diversity refers to acknowledging and appreciating the fact that there are various paths leading to the proximity of the Creator.

Islam’s take on diversity from within is well established. The Holy Quran attaches various meaning to the word jihad. Literally meaning to struggle, jihad is not only a religiously sanctioned fight against the non-Muslim enemy but also against one’s nafs, the soul which incites to evil deeds. The Arabic nafs corresponds to Latin anima and the Greek psyche. At least in three different contexts and meaning the Holy Quran mentions heen -- the Arabic word for the specification of time (since and for in English).

The Holy Prophet (PBUH) once said that the difference of opinion among the experts of religion is the blessing of Allah. While deputing Ma’ad ibn Jabal to Yemen, the Prophet inquired him as to how he would arbitrate when a dispute is referred to him. The Prophet approved him when Ma’ad replied according to his own judgment if no direct remedy is found in either the Holy Quran or traditions of the Prophet. During his lifetime, the Holy Prophet did not only appreciate diversity of opinions but also adopted those views which were the most beneficial within the permissible ambit of religion.

Even during the life spans of all four Sunni imamas diversity of opinion was deeply rooted. The four schools of thought whom Sunnis subscribe have very diverse edicts on a wide range of theological issues.

Among the Sunnis, the juridical dynamism morphed into stagnation within a short period after the passing of the last imam Ahmed Ibn Hambal (780--855). Literally meaning effort, Ijtihad -- solution to the problems of ever-changing circumstances of the worldly life not directly covered by the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet -- was deserted in favour of conformism.

Toleration is to respect the difference though not approving it. Diversity is conceding to and appreciating the fact that the path to reality and truth is diverse.

Reliance on human faculty within the all-encompassing confines of Quran and Ahadith was strictly discouraged. More often the clergy took the plea that the period of Imams was the last one to be blessed by Allah while referring to a tradition of the Prophet though failing to prove how the tradition inhibits Ijtihad.

The Christians fought each other more mercilessly across the Catholic and Protestant divide than do the Muslims from across the Sunni and Shia fault lines. In the second decade of sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation, one aimed at the reconstruction of doctrines of Christianity and organisation of church, called for severe backlash from the conservative catholic quarters. Both Luther and Calvin were convinced that remedy from excessive corruption of the clergy lay in return to Scriptures. In 1519, Martin Luther, more democratic than Calvin, repudiated the divine monopoly of the pope to understand the word of God. He believed that men were equal in their ability to understand God’s word.

The so-called intermediary role of the clergy was a hindrance in the way of an individual’s salvation. The Thirty Years’ War (1618--1648) of Europe arrayed Catholic fiefdoms against their Protestant counterparts. A religious war that turned into political contest, the Catholic Austrian-Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman empire, the Papacy, Spain and most of the German princes were confronted by the Protestant powers of Sweden, Denmark and Protestant German princes and (after 1635) Catholic France. Just in the month of May 1631, the war produced no less than 24,000 fatalities. It was then the most devastating conflict of modern Europe.

The last three decades of sixteenth century saw Catholic France undergoing religious wars. Within 23 days of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 Protestants were killed. In France, Jean Bodin (1530--1596) set forth his theory of absolute monarchy "unrestrained by law" to control divisive forces. On ideological front, Bodin advocated religious toleration and -- with religious unity evaporated -- he believed in salvaging national unity by separating secular interests from religious ones. Owing to the political astuteness of Tudors, Reformation left England relatively unscathed. Here Thomas Hobbes (1588--1679) advocated absolute monarchy unrivalled by that of Bodin’s. He placed church under the control of the sovereign.

The religion based order was fading. Italian Renaissance (1300--1500) also ushered in inventing modern state. The biggest problem in Machiavelli’s (1469--1512) Italy was the sheer absence of national unity. He detested the church because it was the single biggest hurdle in the way of unification. Perhaps nowhere was the vanishing of medieval ecclesiastical-political order more evident than with the inking of peace treaties at Westphalia in 1648, the beginning of modern nation state system.

The English John Locke (1632--1707) introduced the democratic principles of majority rule, legislative supremacy and limited government and among others the government as an agent of the people. On the question of religion, Locke firmly believed in the separation between church and the state. Locke preached toleration in matters of religious belief as his "Letter on Toleration" is suggestive. The Montesquieu’s (1689--1755) theory of separation of powers was a leap forward in the protection of people’s liberty against the government.

Despite internecine bloodshed, the Catholic and Protestant division did not cease to exist. Even today no person other than a Protestant can be British monarch or queen. Christians are either Catholic or Protestant. The western path out of the binary sectarian strife was envisioning secularism -- separation between state and church -- the primacy of state over church and religious toleration.

Islam, on the other hand, enshrines diversity. The fourteen hundred year old sectarian polar division of Muslims will yield no winner. Will Muslims envisage the Reformation’s remedy by returning back to Scriptures -- Quran and the traditions of the Prophet to break the monopoly of religious warmongers -- or end up with secularism and toleration? If one is to believe in Francis Fukuyama’s conception of history as progressive, linear and directional then it is more of the latter.

In Pakistan, cross sectarian space is rapidly shrinking. A well said adage goes, "ideas need space to grow." In our case engendering toleration and diversity is to nurture them at homes, educational institutes and its dissemination through media. Doing so definitely requires the inculcation of these values through syllabi of religious and secular learning institutions with strong state backing in a strictly professional, neutral, impersonal and non-sectarian flavour. Let us cherish unity in diversity.

Let us cherish unity in diversity