Islam, Pluralism, and Tolerance

When it comes to certain fields, there is no such concept as pluralism. In science, for example, it is assumed that there is only one right answer. Sure, there can be multiple competing theories, but ultimately one theory is assumed to be the correct one and it is the job of scientists to investigate, to debate, to analyze, to carefully consider, and to work to come to that answer.

In contrast, today we are not taught to think of any given religion as being right or wrong. Rather religion is about personal identity, personal feelings, what you subjectively feel to be the case. Religion is not about facts and knowledge, therefore, the reasoning goes, how can any given religion be considered “correct” or “true”? If you are coming from this “subjectivist” view of religion, then you might be prone to think that, in a sense, “all religions are true” in one way or another.

But historically, people did not have this view of religion. Religion, especially in the Abrahamic tradition, was thought of in a similar way to how people today think of science in the sense that understanding reality means understanding God and understanding God means understanding what God has said. It was no coincidence, then, that typically the most knowledgeable and educated people in society in the past were also the most religiously learned. It is also not a coincidence that inter-religious debates in the past happened on the theological level, e.g., Christians and Muslims debating about the nature of God, His attributes, etc., whereas today, most of the handful of inter-religious debates that happen focus on moral concerns like human rights, women’s rights, tolerance, etc.

It is important to note that having an “objectivist” view of religion does not in itself contravene tolerance. For example, our present secular society has an objectivist view when it comes to science, but there is still tolerance for people who are scientifically illiterate or who may even be downright wrong about what they scientifically believe. BUT present society draws the line when it comes to people’s incorrect scientific beliefs harming others, where harm itself is defined according to what is considered to be the correct scientific paradigm.

A simple example is the whole vaccination debate. People can believe whatever they want about the impact of vaccines to children, but at some point, the government was given the mandate to intervene and say that children must be vaccinated, etc. This is because there was a belief that if people were allowed to pursue their incorrect beliefs past a certain point, that would have wider negative ramifications.

Perhaps we should understand Islamic tolerance in the same light. In past Islamic societies, this kind of tolerance also existed. Muslim and Islamic law’s tolerance for Christians, Jews, and their respective religious practices are well known and documented. In other words, there was room for people to be wrong from the perspective of the dominant paradigm but there were limits to that tolerance. This is something we see in present secular society as well, though things aren’t conceived as such.