More than 1400 years ago, a system of equality, justice, and tolerance was established. It came with a universal message that all men were created equal. It declared that there would be no compulsion in religion. And it stated that people from all walks of life should come to know one another so as to foster cooperation and peace.
This system was no United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nor was it the United States’ Bill of Rights. It was the message of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) – a message that came at a time when Europe was clambering out of its dark feudal age and from a place that did not have schools where freedoms and rights were discussed. This was the message of Islam. An Islam that taught tolerance, not tension.
Yet today we find that intolerance and Islam are two I’s that have become increasingly linked. The excerpted verse “slay [the non-believers] wherever thee find them” has become a vanguard of the belief that Islam is an intolerant religion.
Islam has zero-tolerance – zero tolerance for injustice, oppression, and violation of basic human rights. This is because, in Islam, tolerance is a basic principle, a religious moral duty.
But what is tolerance? The word tolerance is thrown around so much so that it seems that its meaning has been cast into the shadows. Conceptually, it means to respect, accept, and appreciate the rich diversity of the world’s cultures, forms of expression, and ways of being human. In no way does this mean lack of principle. It does not mean all religions are the same. In fact, Muslims still believe in the supremacy of Islam. However, we still tolerate our Non-Muslim neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family. We respect their ideas, we learn from them, and we grow from them… all without putting our Islamic values and belief’s at stake.
Islamically, tolerance is the fruit of many seeds. It comes from recognition of the dignity, equality, rights, and freedoms of all human beings, regardless of race, color, language, or background. In fact, from the very beginning, Islam recognized freedom of belief, as clearly demonstrated by the following verse: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) From this, we see that coercion is not permissible. After all, the purpose of this principle is to uphold human rights and rule of law. Nonetheless, it is the believer’s responsibility to present Allah’s Message in a clear way and invite others to it to the best of his ability. However, as Allah says, “If then they turn away, We have not sent you as a guard over them. Your duty is but to convey [the Message]…” (42:48).
Often times, we limit the discussion of tolerance and intolerance to jihad and terrorism. We know that Islam teaches fighting only against those who fight you. In reality, there is so much more to this principle. There is tolerance between family and community members. There is tolerance in views and opinions. There is tolerance when it comes to Muslims and interfaith relations. Knowing this, we, as Muslims, must practice tolerance. Yes, we can tolerate other’s religions, but we must learn to tolerate others within our communities, within our homes, and within our mosques. Once we are tolerant of one another, we can learn to respect each other. Respect can only result in cooperation. And once we have cooperation without concession of Islamic values, this Ummah can truly be successful. Once we find peace and tolerance within ourselves, we can become part of those that live at peace with others. If the Prophet (S), the best man to walk this earth, could tolerate others despite knowing his esteemed position, why can’t we?
As former President Jimmy Carter once said, “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic.” Look around you, whether you’re in a mall, an amusement park, or just at home. Think about it, a mosaic consists of many tiny pieces, varying in size, shape, color, and position, that come together to create something cohesive, something truly beautiful. Alone, these tiny pieces would be insignificant and incomplete. But together, they can become something truly successful. And just like when making a mosaic you cannot force the pieces together, you cannot add coercion when it comes to religion. This is what tolerance in Islam is all about.