The Qur’anic teaching on Ta`aruf and an enriched vision of Tasamuh

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The challenge for Muslims is amplify this Qur’anic teaching on ta`aruf and an enriched vision of tasamuh and to work hard to re-establish these ancient ethics of hospitality as an integral part of contemporary Muslim culture and endeavor. Meeting this challenge demands that we transport the spiritual wealth of our sacred texts out of the realm of textual potentiality from a distant past into the kinesis of a contemporary public virtue to construct a hope and diversity filled future……

 I argue that the persistence of Western scholars, policymakers, journalists and indeed interreligious activists in using tolerance as a cross-cultural category does not inspire us to reach the highest ideals of our respective religious traditions. Tolerance limits our visions in the critical task facing the world in the aftermath of September 11, namely that of “building bridges of understanding” between and across religious communities which are seemingly engaged in a hostile zero-sum conflict. I propose an alternative vision for interreligious peacebuilding which I would like to call “Ta’aruf: Islam beyond Tolerance.”

 It might be expedient to begin with the question of language and terminology. One of the most critical challenges in interreligious dialogue is the question of language, in both its literal as well and symbolic forms. Global realities dictate that we live within the hegemony of the English language, which inevitable privileges those who are more proficient in English and disempowers the less proficient or non-English speakers. This is illustrative of the power dynamics and partiality of hegemonic contemporary discourses on interreligious peacebuilding.

In order to meet the subtle but powerful pressures on 2 See Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy (New York: Colombia University Press, 2003), 3-7. Omar, Islam Beyond Tolerance 3 non-Western traditions to conform to prevailing discourses of “civility”, non-Western scholars often inadvertently shore up concepts and texts from their own traditions that appear to correspond to “fashionable” Western concepts.

The challenge of serious interreligious peacebuilding in fact goes much deeper. Contemporary interreligious dialogue is not only biased by the language within which it occurs but it is also conditioned by a powerful symbolic language, namely the predominant categories of thought which are rooted in Western Christian paradigms. This global reality not only disadvantages non-Christian religious traditions but even non-Western Christian cultures and denominations. It is vital for the proliferating global interreligious movement in general and interreligious interlocutors in particular to firstly, acknowledge and recognize this, and secondly to seek creative ways of redressing it.

Applying this challenge of asymmetries in language and conceptual categories to Islam, the Muslim woman scholar, Riffat Hassan has pointed out that the popular Christian concepts such as “salvation” or “redemption,” for example, do not have corresponding Islamic equivalents. She has lamented this iniquitous dimension of interreligious dialogue by observing that “it has been the common experience of Muslims who participate in interreligious dialogue in the West that such dialogues are dominated by Christian concepts and categories, and Muslim’s are required to ‘dialogue’ in terms which are not only alien to their religious ethos but may even be hostile to it.” Taking this debate about language and categories as a point of departure, I was curious to discover to what extent the concept of tolerance resonates with the Islamic tradition? The Jewish scholar of Islam, Yohanan Friedman, has correctly demonstrated in a recent book Tolerance and Coercion in Islam that there is no precise Qur’anic equivalent to the term “tolerance” or “toleration.”

Friedman has also shown how modern Muslim scholars have adduced proof-texts for the existence of the term tolerance (tasamuh) from prophetic traditions (ahadith) which depart from earlier understandings of these texts. For example, a prophetic tradition (hadith) that has been used to provide textual proof for the existence of the concept of tolerance in Islam reads as follows: “The religion most beloved to God is the kindly hanifiyya (ahabbu al-din ila Allah al-hanifiyya al-samha).”

Because of the linguistic affinity of samha with tasamuh or samaha, the modern Arabic terms for tolerance, these prophetic traditions are understood by modern Muslim scholars as being supportive of the idea of Islamic tolerance toward other religions. In earlier commentaries, however, the same prophetic tradition was understood to mean that Islam is a lenient religion which does most impose hardships on its followers, not in reference to Islam’s attitude to other religions.6 Though samha is not a term from the Qur’an, the Muslim scholar Asma Afsaruddin notes that in great classical Arabic dictionaries of the pre-modern period, one finds that samaha or samh actually has a broader connotation than what Friedman presents. According to Afsaruddin the Arabic word tasamuh is simply the sixth form of the root, which serves to make the action indicated in this verbal noun mutual or reciprocal. This sixth form occurs in the classical dictionaries and means being kind, generous, liberal, and reconciled with one another. Translating samaha or tasamuh as Omar, Islam Beyond Tolerance 5 only tolerance actually restricts the much broader range of meanings contained within it.3 In addition to leniency, the following significations are applicable to samha: generous, liberal, and even being reconciled. The fact that there is no precise linguistic equivalent for the term tolerance does not however imply that Islam does not accept the existence of other religions.

 A denial of the right of others to hold beliefs and views that are different and incompatible to one’s own is tantamount to a denial of God himself. Among the verses of the Qur’an that supports such a contention is the following verse 99 from Surah al-Tawbah, chapter 10.

“If your Lord had so desired, all the people on the earth would surely have come to believe, all of them; do you then think, that you could compel people to believe?”

 This Qur’anic verse establishes the principle of freedom of belief and thought in Islam. According to some Qur’anic exegetes at the conclusion of the verse, the prophet Muhammad is himself reproved for transgressing this principle by being overenthusiastic in convincing others with regard to the truth of Islam.

This Qur’anic concept of seeing religious differences as an expression of the will of God is more vital than that of merely tolerating differences in religious traditions. Words are powerful vehicles in shaping our thoughts, and there are often many layers of meaning embedded in words, not least the popular English word tolerance.

Is there an alternative and higher vision of interracial and interreligious coexistence and harmony that goes beyond the limitations of the idea of tolerance? I believe that such an alternative vision does indeed exist within all of our religious traditions. From the Islamic perspective I would like to offer the Qur’anic concept of ta`aruf, which literally means getting to know “the other,” or as I have interpreted it: embracing the other as extension of yourself.

This idea is eloquently captured in Sura alHujurat, Chapter 46, Verse 10, of the Qur’an:

“O Humankind! We have created you of a male and a female, and fashioned you into tribes and families that you may know each other/recognize each other [ta’aruf] (not despise each other); surely, the most honorable of you with God is the best in conduct. Lo! God is All-knowing, All-Aware.

This Qur’anic verse enjoins human beings to celebrate gender, cultural and other forms of diversity through ta’aruf/recognition/affirmation of each other through intimate knowledge, and not mere toleration. Through this verse the Qur’an teaches that differences among humankind are not incidental and negative but rather that human diversity represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence. The Qur’anic concept of ta’aruf is an alternative vision to that of the tolerance paradigm and represents for me the litmus test of good religion: not how much I can tolerate the other but rather the extent to which I am able to embrace “the other” as an extension of myself.

This well-known Qur’anic injunction illuminates the egalitarian ethic contained in the prophetic tradition we have identified. This powerful ethic obliges Muslims not merely to tolerate but to honor the dignity of all human beings, and to look upon each and every human being—whether he or she is a Jew, an adherent of an extra-scriptural religion, or an atheist—as carrying within her, within him, a part of God. This message is central to the Muslim view of humanity: every human life, Muslim or non-Muslim, has exactly the same intrinsic worth, because as the Qur’an teaches us, each one of us has the breath our God breathed into our being. This is how I understand the Islamic paradigm of ta’aruf: intimately getting to know one another is a pathway to embracing the other as another self, whether they may be Jew, Christian or of no faith. I believe that such an alternative vision can make a major contribution to a more peaceful and just world.

The challenge for Muslims is amplify this Qur’anic teaching on ta`aruf and an enriched vision of tasamuh and to work hard to re-establish these ancient ethics of hospitality as an integral part of contemporary Muslim culture and endeavor. Meeting this challenge demands that we transport the spiritual wealth of our sacred texts out of the realm of textual potentiality from a distant past into the kinesis of a contemporary public virtue to construct a hope and diversity filled future.

∗ A. RASHIED OMAR is a Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame (USA). file:///C:/Users/Solanki/)

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