Today, the question of pluralism is also a problem of the penetration of globalism, products of Western culture, migration, global networks of NGOs, religious organizations and so on. The problem is a complicated one.
Contemporary Muslim societies have to deal with the challenge of pluralism. There are two major challenges. The first is the rejectionist attitude, i.e., those who deny pluralism and multiculturalism in the name of orthodox religious faith.
The other extreme is a wishy-washy relativism where a pluralist, liberal socio-political order is proposed without providing any context for the “glue” element or taking into account the cultural, religious and historical heritage of the society.
What does the classical Islamic tradition have to say about pluralism?
The fact of “plurality” as opposed to pluralism has been acknowledged by religious scholars, philosophers, historians and political leaders in the Islamic tradition. The Quran constantly engages Jews and Christians, the People of the Book, in a scriptural and theological conversation while at the same time presenting numerous arguments to reject the religious and cosmological claims of the Meccan polytheists.
The Prophetic tradition contains numerous references to biblical themes and figures common to Jews, Christians and Muslims. As the last of the three Abrahamic faith traditions, Islam was well aware of the plurality of religious forms before it.
In its rather rapid expansion into various regions in the eighth and ninth centuries, Islam encountered practically all of the major cultural and religious traditions of the time. These include the religious traditions of the pre-Islamic (“jahiliyyah”) Arabs; Mazdeans in Mesopotamia, Iran and Transoxania; Christians (of different communions such as Nestorians in Mesopotamia and Iran; Monophysites in Syria, Egypt and Armenia; Orthodox Melkites in Syria, Orthodox Christianity in North Africa); Jews in various places; Samaritans in Palestine; Mandaeans in south Mesopotamia; Harranians in north Mesopotamia; Manichaeans in Mesopotamia and Egypt; Buddhists and Hindus in Sind; tribal religions in Africa; pre-Islamic Turkic tribes; Buddhists in Sind and the Panjab; and Hindus in the Panjab.
Coupled with the Quranic notion of the universality of religious truth, these encounters have led to the creation of an immense literature on the knowledge and study of other religions and cultures. The body of literature known as the “Milal wa’l-nihal” (Nations and Schools of Thought) tradition treats the history of ideas as the history of religious schools, arguments and counter-arguments, thus providing the first scholarly example of what we today call comparative religion. Compared to the other scholarly traditions of the period, the Muslim historians have produced a vast literature -- on the pre-Islamic schools of thought as well as on the various non-Islamic sects, individual thinkers and ideas that have survived into the Islamic period. Among the prominent Milal writers, one can mention ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 1037), Ibn Hazm’s (d. 1064) and Abu’l-Fath Shahrastani’s (d. 1153).
Outside the Milal tradition, independent works treat the history of religions and cultures from a comparative point of view. Ibn al-Nadim’s (d. 995 or 998) “al-Fihrist” is one of the earliest examples of this genre of cultural and intellectual history.
The classical Islamic tradition developed a notion of what we might call “medieval cosmopolitanism” whereby different religious, ethnic and cultural traditions have merged in such big cities as Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria, Cordoba, Sarajevo and İstanbul. In Andalusia, the experience of “convivencia” (living together) among Jews, Christians and Muslims was a result of the Islamic notion of cultural inclusivism. In the subcontinent of India, a cultural syncretism developed between Hindu and Muslim cultures. In his groundbreaking anthropological work “Kitab tahqiq ma li’l-hind,” Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (d. 1048) provides an extensive study of Indian religion, culture and folklore. Dara Shikuh (d. 1659), the famous Mughal prince and son of Shah Jahan, has translated the Bhagavat Gita and some 50 Upanishads into Persian as “Sirr-i akbar” (Great Mystery). His own “Majma’ al-bahrayn” (The Meeting of the Two Seas), referring to the Quranic verse 19:60, attempts a monotheistic interpretation of Hinduism.
How is contemporary Islam dealing with these questions, and is it really using these rich sources? Contemporary Muslim societies have much to gain from rediscovering this tradition to handle the present challenges of pluralism and multiculturalism.