Finding Space for Pluralism and Religious Freedom in the 21st Century
As an African American with ties to the First Nation Mohawk people of northeast America, travelling across the globe and interacting with people of different nationalities, religious persuasions and orientations toward life has been extraordinary experience, to say the least. A recent visit to Australia and heart rendering discussion with an official of the Aboriginal people of Melbourne only added to my hope for the plight of the under privileged and the neglected voices of marginalized majority of this world to be put on the main stage of world discussions. How can we really tackle climate change and political instability when the majority of the people on this planet only have access to a small percentage of the natural resources? How can we claim to have democratic, free societies when a large percentage of earth’s human population is not figured into the daily public discourse.
For over 30 years, it became normal for me to witness silent yet beautiful people from the poor districts of Los Angeles, California, Kingston, Jamaica, the townships of Cape Town, South Africa and the frontline states of the Southern African region, seeking a way out of poverty and destitution by turning to time honored religious values and lifestyles. Many turned to Islam to overcome the ravages of disease, extra-marital pregnancy and physical and sexual abuse. How could a mainstream religion with ties to the war torn Middle East assist a destitute person in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg? How could a religion in such international turmoil bring peace to an individual in a far off land?
The Blessed Qur’an, teaches that all human life is sacred and must be protected. In the chapter Bani Isra’il, verse 70 it states,
And verily, We have honoured the children of Adam, provided them with transport on land and sea, given them good and pure things for sustenance and conferred on them special favours above much of Our Creation.
In the chapter called Al-Ma’idah, verse 32, The Blessed Qur’an magnifies the unjust taking of life saying:
…We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one killed a person, unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed the whole of humanity. And if anyone has saved a life, it would be as though he has saved the life of the whole of humanity.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) respected life and property so much that even when sending his Companions into battle to defend his young Islamic state he would tell them (in words):
“Do not kill women, children, servants, the aged, non-combatants nor monks in their monastaries. Do not destroy churches, synagogues, buildings nor burn crops and kill animals.”
After the Prophet’s death, it is reported in the annals of Islamic History that his 2nd successor, Umar ibn Al Khattab when asked by the Patriarch of Jerusalem to come to receive the keys to the city, arrived in Bethlehem at the time of the daily afternoon prayer. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) refused an offer by the Patriarch to perform his prayers in the Church of the Nativity. He made his Salah (prayers) outside saying that if he prayed in the church his followers might change it into a masjid. Today we find the Masjid of Umar on one side of the courtyard and the Church of the Nativity, still standing, on the other side. For centuries, Muslims defended the rights of the Christians and the Jews in Jerusalem to maintain their houses of worship and retain their faith.
Today, Muslims find themselves living as minorities in secular societies in Europe and the Americas that are going through tremendous transformations. Religious values are being challenged and new forms of marriage and human relations are appearing every decade. For many in today’s society, alcohol and drugs have taken the place of prayer or religious counselors. Materialism and hedonistic pleasures are the new yardsticks to define success in this life. The concept of the hereafter has been relegated to a science fiction adventure in an apocalyptic world or a journey into deep space.
Muslim counselors and leaders are confronted daily with people who have changed their sexual orientation, become addicted to powerful chemicals or who have been surviving from a life of crime. The question arises: How do we confront these practices that have been considered sinful and sometimes blasphemous in our sacred texts? Rape, murder, adultery, homosexuality, the taking of interest, intoxication, magic, stealing from orphans, abusing children and the elderly have all been classified as unlawful behavior in an Islamic environment. Islam encourages Muslims to maintain family life and provide wholesome alternatives in recreation and entertainment for their children. Today’s rapidly changing cultural landscape has challenged these Islamic norms and questioned the very validity of religion itself.
The challenge in easing the tension lies in finding a way to maintain the right to stand for religious principles in secular society yet at the same time protect the right to life for all citizens. Muslims, particularly those living in western societies need to remember that taking the life of any individual in any society without due process is a major sin. At the same time, Islam and many major religions of the world condemn sexual relationships outside of marriage, thus fornication, adultery, homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality and rape are all considered to be major sins. Family-based sexuality should have its place in the public discourse, and ‘freedom of speech’ should enable an individual to express his opinion or stand up for her religious orientation. At the same time, this does not give anyone the right to kill or terrorize people who do not agree with him.
After years of working with individuals who approached our mosques and social service centers for assistance in coping with a myriad of problems, I was shocked to see a group of people in the U.K. label me as being a preacher of hate! Yes, homosexuals, drug addicts, distraught parents and estranged children approached me for counseling and practical steps for reconnecting with their spirituality. I willingly sat with them for hours in the Islamic Social Services and Resources Association of Toronto, Ontario in Canada. I was not always successful but our meetings confirmed the fact that the mosque should be open for everyone and Muslims should reach out to people of other faiths and varying circumstances. The door of repentance, self analysis and reconstruction has been opened by the Creator, Himself, and will never be closed. In the Sacred Al Quran (39-53), it states:
Say, ‘O my servants who have wronged their own souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah, for Allah forgives all sins. Surely He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Our position is to clearly show the stance of Islam concerning all the issues that Muslims are facing in modern society yet to seek a respectful way of agreeing to disagree with others who hold different perspectives.
Maybe these young zealots who want to purify Europe of all foreign elements and close the door for dialogue on controversial issues need to review their concept of freedom of speech. Expressing your faith’s concepts on God, sexuality, family and society does not mean that you are a preacher of hate! The bottom line is whether we can live together in society in peace and harmony yet respect the rights of free speech. I have always encouraged Muslims to express themselves openly and without fear yet ensure the safety and dignity of all human beings regardless of their color, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Can we today in this turbulent, dangerous world not empower the silent, marginalized majority, learn to agree to disagree and co-exist in peace and justice?
Dr Abdullah Hakim Quick