Addressing Misconceptions: Islam and Diversity

What does Islam say about diversity? Why do some Quranic verses prohibit befriending non-Muslims? Is it true that Muslims cannot take part in non-Muslim festivals or celebrations?
by Muslim.Sg 2023-08-29 • 17 min read
Muslim.Sg is a one-stop online media platform that aims to inspire and empower millennial Muslims with powerful and engaging Islamic religious content.
2023-08-29 • 17 min read

Common Misconceptions About Islam and Diversity

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

Amongst the many misconceptions about Islam is the idea that it advocates for an extreme exclusivist outlook where any forms of diversity are rejected on the basis of upholding the religion’s beliefs.

Unfortunately, this idea can be seen in the likes of militant extremist groups like ISIS, who view the world in binary - ‘us versus them’.[1] Any association with infidels or disbelievers, whether in ideology, culture, practices or way of life, is akin to diluting Islamic principles and identity.

To make things worse, Islamophobic sentiments have also, in some cases, managed to ride on the international media in marginalising Muslims in general because of the very few extremists who abuse Islam to justify their acts and ideology. 

This is not the case for the majority of 1.8 billion Muslims around the world. Most Muslims are moderate in nature, and they can live peacefully with others who may have a different ethnic or religious background.

Read: Moderation In Islam

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

The peaceful nature of Muslims in coexisting with others with different beliefs and cultures can be traced back to how Islam views diversity. Islam and diversity is indeed an important theme to discuss, especially when we live in a plural society like Singapore. 

What does Islam say about diversity? To what extent is diversity accepted?

This article intends to discuss the misconception about Islam and diversity.

Misconception 1: Islam Does Not Embrace Diversity

Contrary to the misconceptions addressed above, the Quran acknowledges diversity as part of Allah’s way in creation (Sunnatullah fil-khalq):

وَمِنْ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦ خَلْقُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَٱخْتِلَـٰفُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَٰنِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٰلِكَ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍ لِّلْعَـٰلِمِينَ

“And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. Surely in this are signs for those of (sound) knowledge.”

(Surah Ar-Rum, 30:22)

There are about 8 billion people around the world, and you can even include those in history from the time of the first human being, but no two individuals are completely identical. Even though there will be some similarities, everyone is different and unique in their own traits and qualities. 

In fact, this same wonder can be seen in other creations too. By observing this extraordinary and intelligent design in creation, we can arrive at the conclusion that there is indeed an All-Wise and All-Knowledgeable Creator to create a fine-tuned universe. This philosophical argument is often referred to as the ‘teleological argument’. 

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

Hence, the Quran tells us that diversity is part of Allah’s way in creation so that we are able to see the signs of our Creator. Through diversity and multiplicity, as Muslims, we can witness The Oneness of Allah s.w.t.

In another verse, Allah s.w.t. reveals to us another wisdom of diversity in creation:

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَـٰكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَـٰكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَآئِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوٓا۟ ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتْقَىٰكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

“O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may (get to) know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous (taqwa) among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.”

(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:13)

This verse identifies another key objective of diversity, which is to know one another. When we meet people who are different from us, it offers us the opportunity to learn new things. Through positive interactions with diversity, we can develop growth, maturity, experience and even learn new qualities like adaptability, patience, empathy and compassion.

Such exchanges can be seen during the early period of the expanding Abbasid Caliphate, where a state-funded movement took place to translate the intellectual heritage of the Hellenistic civilisation into Arabic. 

Read: The Importance of Learning Islamic History

Through such exchanges, Muslims not only contributed to the preservation of knowledge for humanity, but also developed it by offering insights, constructing new epistemological formulations and making newfound scientific discoveries. This golden age of Islam was also credited for the rise of European advancement - also known as the Renaissance - which happened later through their interactions with the Muslim world.[2]

Read: 4 Muslims Who Made Amazing Discoveries During the Islamic Golden Age

Learning from others who are different doesn’t mean we should accept and assimilate everything. In some places, there are societal norms that may be legal according to the state law but are not accepted in Islam, such as consuming alcoholic beverages and gambling. As Muslims, it is our due diligence to ensure that we do not participate in those activities.

Differences should not lead to division. The golden age of Islam, amongst other impactful generations, has shown us how Muslims were able to contribute to uplifting humanity wherever they engage in and integrate with others. Muslims are able to build dynamic societies guided by the tradition in the face of diversity.

Read: Cultural Diversity in Islam

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

Beyond that, the most important quality to develop in engaging with diversity is taqwa (to be mindful of Allah s.w.t), as the mentioned Quranic verse continues.[3] What it means is to develop our character and actions in a way that pleases Allah s.w.t, as we meet people who may either take positive or negative roles in our lives. 

In a nutshell, Islam acknowledges diversity. It is ok to see such differences, especially within moral conduct. As Muslims, we can share and invite others to Islam, but our beliefs are not something we should force upon or proselytise others.[4] What matters is for us to benefit from diversity and to focus on our own development.

Misconception 2: Why do some Quranic verses prohibit befriending non-Muslims?

On one glance at these verses, and without reading the entire Quran, one may find it difficult to find harmony in embracing diversity. So, how do we make sense of these seemingly contradicting themes?

Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا تَتَّخِذُوا۟ ٱلْيَهُودَ وَٱلنَّصَـٰرَىٰٓ أَوْلِيَآءَ ۘ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَآءُ بَعْضٍۢ ۚ وَمَن يَتَوَلَّهُم مِّنكُمْ فَإِنَّهُۥ مِنْهُمْ ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَهْدِى ٱلْقَوْمَ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ

“O believers! Take neither Jews nor Christians as guardians—they are guardians of each other. Whoever does so will be counted as one of them. Surely Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.”

(Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5:51)

And the verse:

لَّا يَتَّخِذِ ٱلْمُؤْمِنُونَ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ أَوْلِيَآءَ مِن دُونِ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ ۖ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَٰلِكَ فَلَيْسَ مِنَ ٱللَّهِ فِى شَىْءٍ إِلَّآ أَن تَتَّقُوا۟ مِنْهُمْ تُقَىٰةً ۗ وَيُحَذِّرُكُمُ ٱللَّهُ نَفْسَهُۥ ۗ وَإِلَى ٱللَّهِ ٱلْمَصِيرُ

“Believers should not take disbelievers as allies instead of the believers—and whoever does so will have nothing to hope for from Allah—unless it is a precaution against their tyranny. And Allah warns you about Himself. And to Allah is the final return.”

(Surah Ali-’Imran, 3:28)

Our scholars of tafsir, such as Imam Taha Ibn Asyur clarify that verses such as these are not absolutes but are conditional. In this case, this verse was revealed during a hostile period of military conflict.

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

When the verse from Surah Al-Ma’idah forbids the Believers to take Jews and Christians as allies or guardians, it was actually revealed in a hostile period when both groups were conspiring to persecute Muslims. In fact, it can be applied to any other groups who plan to do so too. 

Read: Can Muslims Befriend Non-Muslims?

As such, seemingly hostile verses are not meant to be referred to as the general rule. There are multiple hadiths that record the peaceful interactions of our beloved Prophet s.a.w. with people of other faiths in non-hostile conditions.

As narrated by Ibn Ishaq[5] in his Sirah[6], When Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. drafted the constitution of Madinah, he established those who constituted as fellow ‘citizens’ of Madinah (previously Yathrib) while including the local Jews stating:[7]

وَإِنَّ يَهُودَ بَنِي عَوف أُمَّة مَعَ المُؤمِنِين، لِليَهُودِ دِينهم وَلِلمُسلِمِينَ دِينهُم، بَنِي النَجَّار مِثل مَوَالِيهِم وَأَنفُسهم إِلَّا مَن ظَلَم أَو أَثِم، فَإِنَّهُ لَا يوتغ إِلّا نَفسه وَأَهل بَيتِه

"The Jews of Banu ‘Awf are a community alongside/with the Believers. The Jews have their own religion and for the Muslims their own religion; This applies to those under their purview and themselves. But whoever does wrong or commits treachery brings evil only to himself and his household."

In this constitution, we can see how Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. did not take the stand of antagonism against the Jews but included them as part of the Madinan Community. This peaceful position in coexistence is important to highlight as it can be seen across many examples of Muslim history. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked by many.

Read: Religious Freedom: Islam and Religious Minorities

The Quran highlights the basis of our relationship with others in non-hostile conditions as follows:

لَّا يَنْهَىٰكُمُ ٱللَّهُ عَنِ ٱلَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَـٰتِلُوكُمْ فِى ٱلدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَـٰرِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوٓا۟ إِلَيْهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُقْسِطِينَ

“Allah does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely Allah loves those who are fair.”

(Surah Al-Mumtahanah, 60:8)

Justice and kindness are the two most important values of our relationship with others in general and non-hostile conditions. 

Misconception 3: Muslims Cannot Take Part in Non-Muslim Festivals/Celebrations

Joining gatherings with our non-Muslim family members, colleagues, neighbours, or friends is praiseworthy, as it is part of developing good ties with others. This is especially important in a multireligious and plural society like Singapore.

We don’t live exclusively amongst the Muslim community. Rather, we live side by side with the larger Singaporean society. The Quran informs us to establish and maintain good ties with our neighbours. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:

وَٱعْبُدُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَلَا تُشْرِكُوا۟ بِهِۦ شَيْـًٔا ۖ وَبِٱلْوَٰلِدَيْنِ إِحْسَـٰنًا وَبِذِى ٱلْقُرْبَىٰ وَٱلْيَتَـٰمَىٰ وَٱلْمَسَـٰكِينِ وَٱلْجَارِ ذِى ٱلْقُرْبَىٰ وَٱلْجَارِ ٱلْجُنُبِ وَٱلصَّاحِبِ بِٱلْجَنبِ وَٱبْنِ ٱلسَّبِيلِ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَـٰنُكُمْ ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ مَن كَانَ مُخْتَالًا فَخُورًا

“Worship Allah (alone) and associate none with Him. And be kind to parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, near and distant neighbours, close friends, (needy) travellers, and those (bondspeople) in your possession. Surely Allah does not like whoever is arrogant, boastful”

(Surah An-Nisa, 4:36)

In this verse, both ‘near’ and ‘distant’ neighbours are mentioned. Imam Al-Qurtubi cited other scholarly views, commenting that the ‘distant’ neighbours here refer to the Jews and Christians. Subsequently, he summarises that the command to be good to neighbours includes both Muslim and non-Muslim neighbours in general. This involves upholding and protecting the rights of neighbours and maintaining good relationships with them.

Hence, it is important to attend significant functions, especially when they may invite us, such as their wedding ceremony or funeral[8] at the church. These exchanges can mean a lot to others.

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

As we are clear with our conscience and objective of our visit, ensure that we do not participate in their religious rituals or other acts prohibited in Islam, such as consuming alcoholic drinks and non-Halal food.

See more: Contemporary Irsyad Series by Office Of The Mufti

Conclusion

Living in a multicultural and multireligious society like Singapore, let us continue to uphold and promote the principle values of mutual respect, justice and kindness as we live together with fellow Singaporeans. 

Islam teaches us to value these principles as we have seen above. Engaging with diversity positively can allow us to develop ourselves both individually and also as a community. Ultimately, we seek Allah’s pleasure to be good Muslims and cultivate taqwa.

And Allah knows best.

diversity, Islam, Muslims, differences

 


Notes & References:

[1] Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Islam, Pluralism & Multi-Culturalism - https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/idss/724-islam-pluralism-multi-cultu/

[2] How Islamic Learning Transformed Western Civilization - https://muslimheritage.com/islamic-learning-transformed-west-civilization-rev/

[3] “O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may (get to) know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous (taqwa) among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:13)

[4] This is clearly mentioned in Surah Al-Baqarah: “There shall be no coercion in matters of religion..” (2:256)

[5] Ibn Ishaq is one of the first to work on the biography of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Most scholars who preceded him were invested in the development of the hadith literature, compiling the sayings and actions of the Prophet s.a.w. He was one of the first to record the Prophet’s life, based on the compilations of hadith, in the style of historical biography - The Sirah

[6] Sirah - The historical biography of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

[7] https://www.alsirah.com/%D9%88%D8%AB%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A9/  

[8] Qays ibn Sa’d reported: A funeral passed by the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and he stood up. It was said to him, “It is a Jew.” The Prophet said, “Was he not a soul?” (Muttafaqun ‘Alayh)

 

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