Colombo Telegraph

Lessons On Tolerance & Pluralism: From The Holy Prophet Of Islam

By Lukman Harees

Lukman Harees

As the Muslims remembers the birth of the Prophet of Islam ( on whom be Peace), at one of the most challenging times in their history when they, along with their faith and their role model Prophet are being unfairly tar-brushed and criminalized as being intolerant and averse to Pluralism by political bigots and a biased Western media, it in relevant to refer to his exemplary approaches towards accommodating the ‘other’. The history has proved over the ages that the faith and religious way of life he offered to the war-weary and barbaric world of that time , was not only relevant to the ‘camel riders’ but also the chauffeurs of ‘modern cars too(to borrow some critic references).

His life was a life fully lived, standing out as a role model in all aspects of life whether religious or secular. Whatever aspect of life we look at or whichever dimension of the life of the Holy Prophet (S) we try to explore, we find strength and nobility of character and serenity or inner-calm, which comes with communion with God in the fullest sense. His nobility, generosity and magnanimity , shows itself most of all in charity and kindness to all men and more generally to all beings. There was no narrowness or pettiness in the soul of the Holy Prophet (S) and no limitation in giving of himself to others. His blessed life is full of examples that have kept generations of Muslims and Mankind inspired.

He was born in 570 AD to a noble family of Makkah, Arabia and received his first revelation from God at 40, His subsequent call to monotheism and social reform was heavily opposed by the Makkan elite and were put through enduring thirteen years of intense persecution. His 23 years of his prophetic mission and teachings was holistic , result-oriented, action packed and colourful which even his bitterest critics acknowledged as being of universal application and down to earth practical. Reverend Bosworth Smith in ‘Muhammad and Muhammadanism,’ London, 1874 says, “Head of the State as well as the Church, he was Caesar and Pope in one; but he was Pope without the Pope’s pretensions, and Caesar without the legions of Caesar, without a standing army, without a bodyguard, without a police force, without a fixed revenue’. French Philosopher Lamartine remarked, “Philosopher, Orator, Apostle, Legislator, Conqueror of Ideas, Restorer of Rational beliefs…. The founder of twenty terrestrial empires and of one spiritual empire that is Muhammad. As regards all standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may well ask, is there any man greater than he?”.

One of the great landmarks of his life achievements was that he worked for peace, but also defined the parameters of the judicious use of force as well, when force was needed. He convinced people to give up alcohol, drugs, prostitution and crime, and promoted healthy living. He condemned domestic violence, encouraged his wives to speak their own mind, and granted Muslim women many rights not dreamed of in Europe until centuries later, including the right to own property, reject arranged marriages, and seek divorce because of incompatibility. And he encouraged his followers to seek beneficial knowledge wherever it could be found, with the result that Muslims never experienced a conflict between science and religion, and led the world in many fields of learning for centuries afterwards. Although his enduring legacy can be observed in everything from art to politics, his greatest achievement by far was to re-establish pure monotheism. As simple and straightforward to understand as the nucleus at the centre of an atom, the concept of One God lies at the heart of Islamic culture. Muslims turn to their Creator for guidance, without the need for intermediaries, or the loss of dignity that idolatry and superstition bring.

Holy Prophet (S) and his followers were invited to relocate to Madinah, a town to the north that had been torn apart by generations of intertribal warfare. He successfully settled their differences and forged a bond of brotherhood between two warring factions, as well as between the locals and the new emigrants. For Arab tribal society, this was an amazing accomplishment. The early Muslims learned to implement the golden rule under his tutelage: ‘No one truly believes until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.’ Further, the tolerance he displayed and the mercy he offered even to the worst of enemies, for example at the Victory of Makkah, were legendary. He forgave even his bitterest enemies and offered peace to all.

Being a great social reformer he was, religion was not a matter of personal conviction alone but a complete way of life, and Madinah flourished under his leadership. The ‘Madina Charter ’ or model of government, based on justice, respect for human dignity and God-consciousness, became the template to which Muslims have looked for guidance and inspiration ever since. He drew up the world’s first constitution in which the rights of religious minorities were protected, and entered into treaties and alliances with neighbouring tribes. He sent letters to the rulers of the Persians, Egyptians, Abyssinians and Byzantines, announcing his message of pure monotheism and inviting them to accept Islam. For the first time in history, women, children, orphans, foreigners and slaves were granted extensive rights and protection. Many of his concerns seem surprisingly ‘modern’: he condemned racism and nationalism, saying ‘there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or a white man over a black man, except in righteousness.’ He established laws protecting animals, trees and the environment. He encouraged free trade and ethical investments, but secured workers’ rights and forbade usury.

It is in this instance that it is pertinent to make a further mention about this ‘Medina Charter’, which even President Sirisena too mentioned in his message to mark the Birthday of the Holy Prophet(S). The Charter of Medina was drafted by the Holy Prophet (S) shortly after his arrival at Medina, following the migration from Mecca. This formed the basis of a multi-religious Islamic state in Medina. The constitution was created to end the bitter intertribal fighting between the rival clans of Medina and to maintain peace and cooperation among all Medinan groups. Establishing the role of Muhammad (S) as the mediating authority between these two groups and all others in Medina was central to the ending of Medinan internal violence and was an essential feature of the constitution. The document ensured freedom of religious beliefs and practices for all citizens and assured that representatives of all parties, Muslim or non-Muslim, should be present when consultation occurs or in cases of negotiation with foreign states.

The Medina Charter serves as an example of finding resolve in a dispute where peace and pluralism were achieved not through military successes or ulterior motives but rather through respect, acceptance, and denunciation of war – aspects that reflect some of the basic tenets of the religion Holy Prophet (S) was guiding and promoting. Through an examination of the Medina Charter, pluralism and tolerance were advanced and instated in Medina, which could help avoid the divide and misunderstanding plaguing much thought, rhetoric, and media today between Muslims, and others, all over the world. Peace was achieved in Medina, through the unyielding principles of Islam – tolerance, love, reason, and a belief in God. The Medina Charter, thus shows that Islam rejects the use of compulsion in religion and violence and that over centuries of human existence, the most effective way to resolve conflicts comes through mediation. This Charter is an example that should be discussed and referred to in current conflicts. The creation of a community, or ummah, offers pluralism to everyone. For people are not judged on their beliefs, but on their actions. Persecution is the instigator of all tensions, and reason and tolerance is the essence of all peace. Just as in the streets of Medina, through tolerance and respect, we too may one day have a world-wide community , where people of all races and faiths can co-exist on the basis of mutual tolerance and pluralism.

The Holy Prophet (S) accomplished all this within a short space of only 23 years, and through the strength of his character and personal example; he inspired in his followers a love, devotion and sense of awe that was unparalleled. He preached religious moderation and balance; he forbade his followers to adopt a monastic lifestyle and preferred that they establish strong families and engage themselves in bettering the world around them, while remaining deeply conscious of God. In the brief space of one generation and during his own lifetime, he transformed the once barbaric and uncivilized society into an exemplary set of people imbibed in the highest standards of moral conduct and yearning to create a world based on justice and peace. Within 100 years , his message had touched the hearts and lives of millions in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. History bore witness to the fact, that it was the Quranic teachings and the inspiration given by the Holy Prophet (S), which encouraged the Muslim intellectuals to acquire explorative knowledge and science of astronomy, medicine and mathematics during the so called ‘Dark Age’, the benefits of which we are reaping today. Today, Muslims have, along with the Qur’an, a reliable codified account of his life and teachings, which form the holistic foundation of a satisfying way of life for them, while for others, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the heart and mind of an exceptional man and role model from whom much can be learned, for he was the Messenger of God to all mankind.

This great personality’s revolution was no ordinary revolution; it was an ideological, intellectual, social, economic, political, moral and spiritual revolution moulded into one single system revolving round the concept of the Only Creator and Sustainer of the world. Seen from the worldly point of view, he was a genius unparalleled in the history of mankind. What makes us in awe of the Holy Prophet (S) is that there is no aspect of human society today that he did not deal more than 14 centuries ago. In contemporary terms, we would say that he was a sociologist, a psychologist, a military commander, an international leader, a manager, a physician, a head of state, a philosopher, and a visionary (just to name a few of his roles). Through him, we see Islam as a comprehensive way of life. We see the Shari’ah (Islamic law) being lived, and we can extrapolate standards by which to operate and to evaluate the degree to which we are living the Islamic way of life successfully. It was the multi-faceted character of his holistic personality which impressed many of modern writers and philosophers of modern times to explore his great life. Mahatma Gandhi admiring his great personality quipped ,’ “…I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and his own mission. These, and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every trouble’. Muslim Rule in Spain was a recent example of how Muslims who followed their Prophet’s advice, ruled with justice, tolerance and mutual respect.

Sadly, especially in the post-September 11th era, a new wave of antagonism has arisen, and people around the Western world and elsewhere generally fear Islam, as result of the machinations of the Islamophobia lobby. People confuse the actions of nationalists and fundamentalists, who hide behind some cherry picked verses of the Quran taken out of context, with what the actual religion promotes. His personal ambition as given to him by God was one of spreading peace and unity, creating a community, or Ummah, made up of diverse groups, through the teachings of the Quran and in the name of Islam. This is what the mainstream Muslims believe in and what they profess to follow. Thus, at a time, when the world believes in the use of force and violence to solve problems and the religious extremism has become a norm rather than an exception , the exemplary life of the Holy Prophet of Islam (S) will always be a beacon light offering a practical way to ‘live and let live’ and achieve sustainable peace while shunning oppression of Man by Man. As the Quran emphasizes this need for avoid mutual hatred and promote mutual understanding and tolerance: “O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honour each other (not that you should despise one another).”

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