Islamic ethics and inter-faith relations

By Waris Mazhari

In today’s global village a major challenge is that of relations between different peoples and communities. According to the rules of nature, familiarity should breed love, not contempt or conflict. However, precisely the opposite is happening today. This is because the links that are being established today across cultures through new technological innovations are artificial, not real. They have been brought about by external changes and circumstances. Real closeness comes about, instead, through internal or inner change, but this is not really happening today.

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Even if Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations is not true and is grossly exaggerated, there can be no denying that there is a dimension of conflict that is present. We must seek to understand the causes for this and, accordingly, work out appropriate solutions. There are three main causes for this:

1. Straying from the path of morality and ethics, which is a reflection of denial of human nature and revolt against religion.

2. The misuse of religion, while ignoring contemporary social changes and transformations and

3. Politics based on communal and personal interests while ignoring international as well as basic human interests.

 At the global level, in order to improve inter-religious relations we will have to work on all the above-mentioned fronts. In this we would need to be guided by moral imperatives. Religion must not be misused and politics must not be played out in such a way that serving one’s own interests leads to the suppression of others. This can only happen on the basis of natural human ethics and morality.

If interpreted properly, religion provides human beings with the appropriate standard of morality and ethics. Through religion we learn to distinguish between good and evil, and, accordingly, to shape our lives in the right direction. Human beings have no external standard other than religion through which their moral worth can be judged. A truly religious person considers his relations with other human beings as intimately associated with his relations with God. Accordingly, concern for other human beings should form a basis of inter-personal relations. This is the proper way to interpret and understand the social ethics of religion. As the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said, religion (deen) is the name for welfare of and concern for others (al-dinu-al-nasihatu). A practical form of this is reported by another Hadith, which relates that a believer should desire for others what he would desire for himself.

 In my opinion, there are four basic pillars of Islamic morality insofar as it relates to inter-faith relations:

1. The Islamic conception of universal humanity.

2. The Islamic conception of human rights.

3. The Islamic conception of pluralism.

4. The Islamic conception of peace.

 The Islamic conception of universal humanity

This conception is based on the three principles of the unity, dignity and equality of all human beings in their status as creatures of God. Firstly, the Quran reminds us that the origin of all human beings is the same, they being children of the same set of primal parents, although they have been divided into different tribes or communities. This division, according to the Quran, is so that they may know each other, based on equality and care for each other. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said that all creatures are members of God’s family, and that in God’s eyes that person is the best who maintains the best relations with His family. In other words, God wants to see human beings united at heart. Their external differences are part of the wisdom of creation and a test for human beings. While acknowledging these differences, we must strive to maintain the unity of hearts.

 Monotheism (tauhid) is ingrained in human nature and is related to the nature of the one God. God says that He made human beings in the best form. The best form here implies that God created Adam in His own image. He created Adam with His own hands and blew His spirit into him. The relation between the essence of human beings and God can be understood from this. It is this truth that prominently figures in the wujudi philosophy of Islamic Sufism. Some Sufis considered this to be the essence and the spirit of Sufism, and thus of Islam. A Hadith report exhorts human beings to seek to acquire reflections of the attributes of God, which reflects this very distinguishing feature of the human species. Human beings cannot perform their role as vicegerents of God if they are bereft of the reflections of divine attributes and ethics.

 The second theoretical basis of the oneness of humankind is the Quranic understanding of human dignity. God says in Quran that He has dignified the children of Adam and has bestowed on them superiority over other creatures. Human beings are worthy of dignity simply by their status of being human. This point is made in the form of a shariah-based principle by the famous Hanafi scholar Ibn Abidin Shami, who writes that ‘A human being is worthy of dignity even if he be a disbeliever’ (al adami mukarramun shar‘an walau kafiran). In the Islamic understanding of ethics this is reflected in the insistence on respecting the essential humanity of all human beings. Hence, when a funeral procession passed by the Prophet (s.a.w.), he stood up. In response to a question from his companions about this, he answered that he did so because the Jew was also human. He said, ‘is he not a human being?' (alaisat nafsan). This reflects the Prophet’s respect for all humanity.

 There are two aspects of human dignity which can be perceived from the following two points mentioned in Quran:

1) God made the angels bow down before Adam. Iblis refused to do so and he was punished for all time for this refusal.

2) God made human beings his vicegerents on earth and bestowed on them custodianship, despite the human capacity for doing wrong. When the angels asked God why he had done so, He replied that He knew what they did not know.

The third basis of Islam’s universalism is its insistence on the equality of all human beings as creatures of God, despite their religious differences. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) was meant for the whole of humankind. He stated that all human beings are equal to each other like the teeth of a comb. Another Hadith report mentions that the Prophet (s.a.w.) stated that all human beings are brothers to each other. The Quran refers to prophets sent to various communities as brothers of their people, although many of these people denied or opposed them. Although the Quran mentions that these prophets referred to their people as members of their own community, many of these people did not believe them. Many of these people remained disbelievers and polytheists. This suggests that, according to the Quran, what united the prophets with their people was their common ethnicity rather than common religion.

The Islamic Conception of Human Rights

The Islamic concept of human rights derives from the Islamic notion of the oneness of humankind. All humans, by virtue of being human, are eligible to enjoy the same rights. The Quran refers to the killing of one innocent person as tantamount to the slaying of all human beings. The importance of a single individual can be upheld only if he or she enjoys universal human rights. This is similar to the case of citizens of the same country, who can be considered to be equal only when they enjoy equal rights. Every individual is a citizen of God’s universal kingdom, and so he is eligible for the same universal rights as other human beings, be these religious, social, political or economic or other rights.

According to Muslim scholars, right from Adam to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), the shariahs revealed to various prophets aimed at the protection of rights of the self (nafs), property (mal), religion (din), intelligence (aql) and progeny (nasl). After Imam Shatibi, some other ulama expanded this list of rights. These rights reflect basic human rights that must be protected. From the principal sources of Islam it emerges that these rights have been bestowed on people because God is the creator of them all and loves them all. Accordingly, He bestowed on human beings the status of His vicegerent, provided they follow His will.

Islamic Pluralism and Coexistence

Pluralism and coexistence are core values in Islam. In numerous verses of the Quran they are presented as a natural phenomenon. Islam does not see colour, race, language, ethnicity or nationality as the basis for judging the relative worth of human beings. Instead, these differences are accepted and tolerated as natural. The only criterion for difference is that of religion. This is because the scale to measure the deeds of human beings is religion. Despite this religious distinction, Islam provides all human beings freedom of faith and a person’s religion will not be allowed to negatively impact on his rights.

The Quran explicitly states that there is no coercion in religion. Human beings are free to adopt any religion or ideology they might wish. This is because it is not in God’s scheme of things that all human beings should be made to subscribe to one way of thinking or behaving. The Quran says that if God had wished He would have made all human beings members of one community. But He did not do so. Each community has its own way of thinking, environment and natural abilities. This is why, according to the Quran, God has made a set of laws (shariah) and a path (minhaj) for every community. The Quran provides individuals with freedom in matters of belief and action, mentioning in this regard that each person is responsible for his own deeds. Thus, the Quran lays down ‘Your religion is for you, and my religion is for me’ (lakum dinakum wa liya din). It also says, ‘Our actions are for us, and your actions for you (lana ‘amaluna walakum ‘amalukum). The Quran also says that the opposition posed by any community must not let one stray from the path of justice.

The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) established the first Islamic state in Medina. It was based on the principles of multiculturalism, pluralism and common welfare. The Treaty of Medina that the Prophet (s.a.w.) signed was the first written document in Muslim history. All the communities who had consented to this agreement would enjoy the same rights, although the state was headed by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). According to the terms of the agreement, the Muslims, Jews and the polytheists who had consented to it would be treated as members of one ummah or community and the principle of freedom of religion was respected. An article of the Medina treaty reads, ‘The religion of the Muslims is for the Muslims and the religion of the Jews is for the Jews’ (lil muslimina dinuhum wa lil yahude dinuhum).

This respect for religious freedom is also enshrined in the Quran itself, where churches and synagogues are mentioned before mosques in the context of the Quran’s condemnation of the unwarranted destruction of places of worship:

If Allah did not check one set of people by means of another, there would surely had been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure. Allah will certainly aid those who aid His [cause].

 From this Quranic verse it emerges that God has taken it on Himself to protect places of worship belonging to followers of other faiths, particularly the ‘People of the Book’ (ah lul- kitab). This is because, as this Quranic verse says, God’s name is oft-recited in these places. This reflects the Quranic understanding of religious pluralism.

 In the treaties made between the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and the people of Najran and Heerah the non-Muslims who were party to these treaties were given religious, economic and social freedom and rights. After the Prophet (s.a.w.), his companions followed in his path. In the treaty made between the Caliph Umar and the people of Palestine, the non-Muslims were granted full autonomy. This principle was also reflected in subsequent treaties made in Islamic history.

 In this context, it is appropriate to quote Bernard Lewis, who, in his book The Jews of Islam, writes:

Religious persecution of the members of other faiths was almost completely absent. Jews and Christians under Muslim rule were not subject to exile, apostasy or death, which was the choice offered to Muslims and Jews in re-conquered Spain. And Christians and Jews were not subject to any major territorial and occupational restrictions such as were the common lot of Jews in pre-modern Europe.

 The Islamic Conception of Peace

The Islamic conception of peace also bears an intimate relation with the Islamic conception of inter-faith relations. Unfortunately, some fuqaha have undermined this ethical principle. In place of the principle of lasting peace, they have taken the temporary principle of war as a central defining feature of inter-faith relations. This is why relations between Muslims and others are such a problematic issue in the overall fiqh tradition. This, in turn, has negatively impacted on the image that non-Muslims have of Islam.

 According to the Islamic code of ethics, the basic principle that governs inter-personal and inter-faith relations in ordinary situations and contexts should be peace. The word ‘Islam’ also means ‘peace’ and to be a ‘Muslim’ also means to be at peace or peaceful. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) stated, ‘A believer is he from whose hands and tongue people are safe’ (al-muslimu man saleman-nasu min lisanihi wa yadehi). He (s.a.w.) also said, ‘A believer is he from whom people’s life and wealth are protected’ (al-mominu man aminahu an-nasu ala dimaihim wa amwalihim). This sentiment is also expressed in the form of the Islamic greeting of Asalamu Alaikum, a supplication that the person one is greeting should be at peace. War in Islam is something imposed from outside, rather than being intrinsic to its spirit. It is an exception rather than the rule. Peace-making is considered to be a noble action in the Quranic scheme of things. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said that a person is not a true believer whose neighbours suffer his persecution and torment.. He said that the Angel Gabriel so stressed to him the importance of neighbours that he felt that they might even be included in the list of one’s inheritors. And neighbours include both Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

 Clearing Up Misunderstandings

These points give us the essential principles to base inter-community interactions between Muslims and others on. However, there are some crucial misunderstandings that stand in the way of improving these relations. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are responsible for this and hence both need to clear their minds.

 Some Muslims think that Islam forbids them from befriending non-Muslims and exhorts them to wage war and kill non-Muslims or consign them to a subservient position in an Islamic state, etc.. Other such issues include the punishment for Muslim apostates and the question of the salvation of non-Muslims after death. Some Muslims think that they alone have the birthright to enter heaven. They consider the global political dominance of Islam as a divine mission, for which they feel that violence can be used as a means. They believe that non-Muslims are bereft of God’s mercy and are subjected to eternal condemnation.

 As far as Quranic teachings on such issues are concerned, it must be remembered that they address the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and his companions and are often specific to that historical context. Further, several of these prescriptions were intended to be temporary and limited in their import. To see them as other than this would lead to wrong conclusions. Hence, the order to kill (qital) disbelievers is specific to the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and his companions. These disbelievers had waged war against the Muslims and refused to respect the basic human rights of the early Muslims. The Quran refers to this refusal and the waging of war against the Muslims as religious persecution, and exhorts the Prophet (s.a.w.) and his companions to put an end to it. Now, after the end of this persecution, this commandment does not apply in the case of other people who do not persecute Muslims.

 Likewise is the question of friendship with non-Muslims, which the Qur’an appears to frown upon in several verses. However, in one chapter of the Qur’an in which there is a verse that forbids befriending non-Muslims another verse clarifies that God forbids Muslims from befriending only those who wage war against them on account of their religion and who have forced them out of their lands or helped those who forced them to leave. If the forbidding of friendship with non-Muslims was a general rule, then how can one explain the fact that Muslim men can marry women from among the ‘People of the Book’?

 In Muslim-ruled Spain and in India under the Mughals, non-Muslims enjoyed their religious and other social rights. This has been attested to by several non-Muslim scholars themselves. With certain exceptions, they were treated fairly, and not by the harsh and prejudicial commandments that certain fuqaha had prescribed. The institution of jizya, like that of slavery, was prevalent in Arabia before the advent of Islam in the ancient Roman and Iranian civilizations. The word jizya is derived from the ancient Persian word gazit.

 Muslims living in non-Muslim lands and non-Muslims living in Muslim lands were parties to treaties that sought to respect their rights. These treaties were given religious sanction. If they were not satisfied with the status they enjoyed they could migrate to other lands. To commit treason against a state with which one has a treaty with was, and still is, considered a crime.

 As far as the question of whether non-Muslims deserve God’s mercy and salvation, one must also ask if Christianity and Judaism consider Muslims as so deserving. As far as the Hereafter is concerned, every religious community has the right to believe that it is right and the others are wrong. Not to do so would lead to hypocrisy and cheating. The right attitude is to regard one’s religion as true but at the same time to tolerate others and respect their beliefs and customs, rather than denying the differences with them or seeking to do away with these differences.

 Many misunderstandings and misinterpretations upheld by a large number of Muslims on matters related to inter-faith relations have also to do with the intellectual stagnation and downfall of Muslims over the past few centuries. Several understandings of Islamic identity are concoctions of later Muslims themselves, and their intellectual foundations are weak. Some Hadith reports forbid Muslims from imitating people of other faiths, but these have to be seen in the historical context of the emergence of a new Islamic religious culture. That is why the strictness in this regard was able to be watered down later when Islamic culture had established itself. A universal faith like Islam cannot be tied to any particular culture because it seeks to unite the whole world in a single universal culture.

 The later fuqaha dwelt in great detail on questions like greeting non-Muslims, exchanging gifts with them, attending their festivals and solemn functions, visiting them when they are sick, using their evidence in cases, wearing their clothes and using their utensils etc.. On some of these issues, they expressed opinions that are not in accordance with general moral principles. These opinions can also be challenged and critiqued from within the broader Islamic ethical framework. These views bear the stamp of the environment of the Middle Ages, when expertise in fiqh became a veritable profession, resulting in complicated and technical reasoning and arguments. A large number of Muslims are still influenced by this mindset shaped by the medieval fiqh tradition and this assumes the form of a major challenge.

 Challenges and Problems

The ethical framework that has been suggested above is indispensable for improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims at the practical level. Hence, the ideological challenge is a major one that we need to face. This requires a new interpretation of Islamic theology, whose intellectual basis should be the broad Islamic ethical paradigm. It can be made practical through engaging in ijtihad. This process has already begun, although the present global political climate is not favourable for such a project. Today, there is a great need for this, but its achievement is also not easy. Most Muslims are victims of the post-Crusades and post-colonial mentality.

 The movement that ostensibly calls for the reformation or rethinking of Islamic thought, which is so much talked about in the West, particularly in America, is influenced by today’s politics and indeed is an integral part of this politics. However, it should be evolved on purely intellectual and academic bases. Ironically, it might well lead to the further reinforcement of the fear that some Muslims have, rooted in a traditional mentality that the whole world is against Islam and is allegedly bent on its destruction. American aggression against Muslim states has resulted in violent reaction and in the emergence of certain interpretations of religion, which the West, particularly America, regards as a threat. Imposition must be replaced by dialogue, particularly with serious Muslim intellectuals.

 The task of reinterpreting Islamic theology has been haltingly taken up and is proceeding but slowly. Academic circles must explore the possibilities for this and promote efforts in this regard. It can only evolve gradually, and not suddenly or at once. This rethinking of Islamic theology must be based on the rich intellectual and cultural heritage of Islam. Islamic thought is dynamic, not static, because it is based on diversity of opinions. We need to explore this diversity deeply. We need to evolve a proper method of using the concept of the ‘aims of the shariah’ (maqasid-i shariah) in this regard. There is a need for incorporating this issue into Islamic discourse.


 Dialogue is the most important issue with regard to inter-faith relations within the broader Islamic ethical paradigm. The task of rethinking Islamic theology is for Islamic scholars to do. On the other hand, dialogue must involve both Muslims and non-Muslims, but not just religious specialists. Dialogue must take place at the social and political levels too, between people working in these fields. The new way of thinking theology that is called for today can be provided a conducive environment to develop if dialogue is also promoted.

 Dialogue is a continuous process. It is crucial not only because today we are faced with the possibility of the clash of civilizations, which needs to be pre-empted, but also because dialogue is a basic human imperative through which people can get to know about each other, their beliefs and their culture. In the past this happened essentially through polemics, but it is clear that this can only further misunderstandings and negative feelings. Another traditional method for relating to other peoples was missionary work. Missionaries sought to win others to their fold. However, dialogue is wider than this and should be based on the basis of our common humanity. Inspiration for this should be derived from the ethical values that are common to all religions.

 Both the East and the West have adopted negative and emotional approaches in seeking to relate to or understand each other. A string of events, from the Crusades to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and 9/11, have indelibly influenced the way in which Islam has been understood in the West, generally in negative terms. On its part, the East has sought to understand the West in the backdrop of the legacy of colonialism and now new forms of imperialism. In this way of relating to each other, both have focused only on the negatives and not on the positive features of the other. Today, some serious intellectuals in both the Muslim world and the West are seeking to honestly understand each other, but the walls of suspicion and fear have become even thicker and higher than before. In the aftermath of 9/11, in many Islamic circles the terrorist actions were roundly condemned, and this gives us hope for the future. However, the American invasion of Iraq has led many Muslims to turn back to their earlier way of thinking.

 Dialogue between Islam and the West is rendered more problematic by the fact that, unlike Islam, the West is not a religious entity but, instead, is based on the intermingling of various cultures. Contemporary Western culture is largely based on secular liberalism, which represents a revolt against religion. In contrast, Islamic culture is based on religious principles. Muslim thinkers, by and large, have not engaged in any systematic and balanced analysis of Western secular culture. Few Muslim scholars who enjoy the confidence of the Muslim masses have done so. Much of what has been attempted in this regard has been one-sided, negative and based on secondary sources. This is another hurdle in the path of dialogue between Islam and the West.

 According to the Quran, dialogue is an Islamic imperative and duty. As far as Muslims are concerned, contemporary political conditions are a major obstacle to dialogue. Dialogue can only be possible if both parties have a common goal and if both seek to achieve that goal. The world cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals changes first. Dialogue cannot proceed unless both parties realize and admit that they may have been, to some extent, wrong and that the other party may have been right, at least to some extent. To think that one is one hundred per cent right means that one believes that the other party is one hundred per cent wrong. Dialogue entails accommodation, the willingness to look again at one’s way of understanding others and the capacity to judge others by their norms rather than by one’s own.

 Trapped in the utopian environment of talk of dar-al-Islam, Islamic Caliphate or pan-Islamism, a large section of Muslims think of dialogue as a new form of imperialism or intellectual colonialism. Likewise, some extremist Christians and Jews regard dialogue as naïve romanticism and of no use at all. How should we relate to such people? In the past we sought to overcome this barrier by seeking to promote dialogue between Islamic and Christian organizations. There is a particular need for Islamic seminaries or madrasas as well as seminaries belonging to people of other faiths to get involved in the dialogue process. However, we must now expand the scope of dialogue to include social, educational and welfare organizations as well as social activists from different religious traditions.


The monthly Tarjuman-e Dar ul-Ulum, of which the author is the editor, is the official organ of the Old Boys’ Association of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, India. Waris Mazhari can be contacted on [email protected]