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The Concept of Pluralistic Society in Qur’anic Perspectives

ARC Team 02
2022-10-25 02:08 250

Sulaiman Rifal, PhD[1]

 Religion and Social Communication 19, No. 1 (2021)



The primary objective of this paper is to examine the concept of pluralism in Islam in accordance with the Qur’anic perspective. What does the Qur’an say about the pluralistic society? Does the Qur’an accept the concept of pluralism? Is there any room for non-Muslims and atheists in Muslim society? How does the Qur’an treat any non-Muslim community? What does the Qur’an say about religious freedom? It is generally believed that Islam promotes an exclusive society of its own. Yet, the prophet Muhammad lived in a pluralistic society. He accepted the concept of pluralism in his lifetime. The covenant of Medina is a historical document that justifies the concept of pluralism in Islam. This paper examines all these questions.


Keywords: Pluralistic society, pluralism, Qur’an, Islam, Muslim community




        As a prelude to our study of the subject of pluralism, we should understand the conceptual foundation of pluralism according to the Qur’an. The fundamental message and mission of all the prophets is one and the same. All the prophets of God called the people to Tawhid, that is to believe in the oneness of God. The last prophet Muhammad did not bring entirely a new message. Rather he was sent down to perfect all previous divine messages. Many verses of the Qur’an emphasize the unity and integrity of divine messages. The divine messages are connected to the last message of the Prophet Muhammad.


Say (Prophet), No, (ours is) the religion of Abraham, the upright, who did not worship any god besides God. So, you (believers), say, ‘We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the Tribes and what was sent down to Moses and Jesus and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them.[2]


The final divine message of God was not a new divine message; rather it was a completion of all the previous divine messages. Moreover, God commanded Prophet Muhammad to follow all previous divine guidance. “Those are they whom God guided them, so follow their guidance.”[3] Furthermore, the duty and responsibility of Prophet Muhammed was to explain what was revealed to him from previous revelations. “O people of the scripture! Now our messenger has come to you, expounding unto you much of that which you used to hide in the scripture.”[4] All these verses tell us that the divine messages are interrelated, and all divine messages are sent by one God. The logical conclusion of these verses is that God is one and all revelations were sent down by one and only God. It means that the prime source of all revealed religions, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is one.


Islam’s Attitude Towards Other Religions


People differ from one another on the matter of religion with the passage of time. It does not make any sense to believe that this universe has more than one God. Almost all the prophets said, “We submit our wills to one and only God.”[5] For instance, in the case of Abraham, when his Lord said to him: “Surrender!” He said, “I have surrendered to the Lord of the Worlds.” In the case of Jacob, upon near death, when Jacob said to his sons, “What will you worship after me?” They replied, “We shall worship your God, the God of your fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, and one God and to him we have surrendered.”[6] Therefore, when we say that the “only acceptable religion for God is Islam,”[7] it should naturally mean that this term incorporates all the divine messages of previous revealed religions. Otherwise, there would not be a unity of divine messages.

Although, the Qur’an declares the oneness of divine messages, it never compels people to believe in Islam. The Qur’an clearly acknowledges that unifying all human beings around the one faith is an impossible task. It is not what God intended. The Qur’an asserts, “If it has been your God’s will, He verily would have made mankind one nation, yet they continue to be differing except him whom your Lord has mercy and for that He did create them.”[8] It again reminds us in another verse, “People will have different religions and ways. Had God willed, He would have made you one community.”[9] Moreover, in the Qur’an, the Prophet is told that most people will not believe “even if you are eager that they should.”[10] Thus, people will differ from one another until the Day of Judgment in the matter of religion. Therefore, Islam in dealing with other religious people emphasizes the importance of mutual understanding and tolerance and compassion. Moreover, the duty of the Prophet is not to force the people into religion; rather it is his duty to teach them and warn them. It is God who judges the people in the Day of Judgment with regards to their belief. A few quotes from the Qur’an will further clarify this point. “Remind them for you are but a reminder and you do not have authority over them.”[11] Moreover, the Qur’an reminds that the role of the Prophet as “the messenger is only to convey the message plainly.”[12] In the end, if they do not believe, what one can do is to be sympathetic to them. “(Prophet) are you going to worry yourself to death because they will not believe?”[13] Displaying sympathy is what Muslims can do. They cannot do anything but sympathize with non-Muslims as guidance is in the hands of Almighty God alone. “Say that God judges them in the Day of Judgment.”[14] Religious freedom is one of the fundamental teachings of Islam. The Qur’an, in fact, inspires people to know the truth in life. It is like a kind mother telling her children not to go near a pit of fire or touch fire out of affection and love; and yet, stubborn children do not care about their mother’s warning but intentionally fall into the pit of fire. Likewise, God has given man warning through his messengers, and yet, if still people choose a wrong path in life, they are entirely responsible for their choices. After all, people are bestowed with a sound human intellect to choose between right and wrong.


Islam’s Stance on Religious Conversion and Violence


      The Qur’an never declares war for changing one’s religion. The Prophet of Islam fought some battles in his lifetime, but all the battles of the Prophet were waged in self-defense or to pre-empt an imminent attack. Muslims were persecuted and tortured in Makkah for ten years. Yet, the permission for fighting was not given at an earlier time. Instead, they were asked to endure with patience. “Pardon and forgive until God gives his command.”[15] Only after they were forced out of their houses and their town and those left behind were subjected to abuse, God gave his permission to fight in defense. “Permission is given those who fight because they have been wronged…. Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘our Lord is God’. For had it not been for God’s repelling some men by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is much mentioned, would certainly have been destroyed.”[16] Jihad becomes an obligation for defending religious freedom, for self-defense[17] and defending those who are oppressed.[18] Yet, some non-Muslims quote various verses of the Qur’an to argue that Islam incites violence and war against non-Muslims. The following verses and traditions are often presented in support of this argument:


              1) Ayat al-Saif: (the Sword Verse): “When the (four) forbidden months are over, whenever you encounter the idolators, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post.”[19] 

              2) The verse which begins with the sentence: “Kill them wherever you encounter them and drive them out where they drove you out.”[20]

              3) “Believers, those who ascribe partners to God are truly unclean: do not let them come near to the Sacred mosque after this year.”[21]


Likewise, some prophetic traditions are taken out of context. The following traditions are reported to have been said on some social contexts. Yet, some literalists have made a generalization on these traditions. These following traditions denounce and disapprove polytheism and disbelief. Yet, we should read them in their social contexts. 


1)  “I have been ordered to fight with people until they pronounce the Tawhid and pray five times…”[22] 

2)  “I’m free (in the Day of Judgment) from every Muslims who lives among the non-Muslims…”[23] 

3) On an occasion when Umar was reading a copy of Jewish scripture, He was warned by the Prophet saying: “Had Moses been among us He would have been following me.”[24]


All these Qur’anic verses and prophetic traditions must be read, interpreted, and understood in the historical, social, and political contexts of the Arabian Peninsula during the time of the Prophet. It would be utterly wrong to do a cherry-pick reading of these Qur’anic verses and prophetic traditions out of their social and cultural contexts. Some classical scholars declared war on non-Muslims merely based on religion, but their statement should be understood in the historical context. Some classical scholars of Islam promoted the theory of exclusiveness of Muslim society. For instance, let us consider Imam al-Shafi’s statements in dealing with non-Muslim nations. He instructed Muslim rulers to engage in war with non-Muslims at least once a year, if not more often, and not to accept a truce for more than 10 years. This instruction was made by an analogy to the practice of the Prophet that he engaged in battles with non-believers at least once a year and did not accept a truce for more than ten years. This was a legal speculation of this great scholar of the medieval time. This analogical conclusion might have been suitable for the time of Imām al-Shāfi‘. The generality of such a ruling is questionable in the context of our time. Abū Sulayman notes that no statesman could possibly accept this kind of analogy and understanding in our contemporary world. This kind of analogy is an individual juristic opinion, which has no support from the Qur’an. The tendency toward literalism, a word-for-word and issue-for-tissue analogical comparison led many jurists like al-Shāfi‘ to such a general conclusion that does not sustain the test of time.[25]


Islam’s Contemporary Worldview


        The classical Islamic legal scholars made a distinction between Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. They called the Muslim world Darul Islam: an abode of Islam, and the non-Muslim world Darul of Harb, or an abode of war. This classification was done by some classical Muslim scholars more than a thousand years ago, in their social, political, and geographical contexts. No sane person would agree with such a demarcation in the modern age of globalization. Today, the entire world is envisioned as a global village and the whole humanity virtually interacts with one another without any social or communication barriers. So, it would be inappropriate to divide the world by this sort of classical classification. One of the biggest social changes that humanity experiences today is that it lives in an interconnected world. The digital communication networks, transport facilities and technologies have made the world virtually one. People of different faiths, ethnicities, and cultures live side by side, work together and interact with one another. Cities like London, New York, Paris, and Melbourne are some classic examples of pluralism and multiculturalism and community cohesion. Human collaboration is very much closer today than ever before in the business and service sectors. To divide the modern global world into Darul Islam and Darul Harb in line with classical Islamic classification would be irrelevant and inappropriate.  

Does the Qur’an fundamentally accommodate pluralism in its teaching? If so, how do we reconcile between the Qur’anic verses that denounce disbelief and deplore the acts of disbelievers and the Qur’anic verses that give religious freedom? Polytheism is one of the greatest sins in Islam and yet, God has given freedom to man either to believe or not believe. It is entirely up to man to choose his path. After all man is blessed with free will and freedom. God tests man for his free will and freedom on the Day of Judgment according to Islamic teaching. Iman or faith in Islam is all about freedom of choice. If one does not believe with free will and freedom, there would not be any meaning to belief due to force. The verse that gives a full religious freedom, “There no compulsion in religion”[26] was revealed after victory of Makkah. This verse was revealed after the Arabian Peninsula was cleared from shirk and the people returned to the original religion of their forefather Abraham. Therefore, all the verses related to kital such as “O prophet; Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites”[27] are abrogated by this verse, including the above Ahadith, which must be understood in its contexts. Also, some verses related to fighting have been particularized by universal and general verses such as Ayat Saif[28] and by many other verses.   

Many verses of the Qur’an encourage Muslims to build a strong and harmonious relationship between Muslim and non-Muslims. The following verse is regarded as a fundamental verse that constitutes the foundation of Muslim and non-Muslim relationship: “God forbids you not, with regards to those who fight you not for your faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them. For God loves those who are just. God only forbids you, with regards to those who fight you for your faith and drive you out of your homes.”[29] Faith does not become a barrier in Islam to interact and communicate with people. Muslims are always advised to be good with non-Muslims in their interactions and dealings. Faith is a personal choice of everyone. So, Islam does not force any one to accept the religion. There is no place in Islam for any kind of coerced indoctrination.

         When Qutailla (a non-Muslim mother of Asma) visited the Medina Asma and refused to see her non-Muslim mother, the Prophet asked her to see her mother and treat her well. Moreover, the relationship between Muslims and the people of the Book is more special. Muslims can eat their food and even marry their women. Non-Muslims comprised of two groups. The first group are non-Muslims who get on well with Muslims and do not harm Muslims; and Muslims are advised by the Qur’an to do justice towards them and treat them equally. The second group are those who do not get on well with Muslims. They disdain Islam and Muslims for no reason. An example of such group are the pagans of Makkans who tortured the Muslims. It is with this second group of people that Islam does not want Muslims to build friendships. Islam tells Muslims not to make any loyal friends from this group of people. “The Believers should not make the disbelievers their allies rather than believers.”[30] Similarly, the Qur’an says, “O, you who believe do not take disbelievers your allies and protectors instead of believers.”[31] This group of non-Muslims always want to wipe out Islam and Muslims. That is why the Qur’an instructs Muslims to take precautionary steps in dealing with these people.

Islam does not forbid friendship with every non-Muslims; rather the forbidden friendship is with those who attack the Muslims and challenge God and His prophet. “You will not find people who truly believe in God and the last Day loving those who oppose God and His messenger, even though they be their fathers or their sons or their brethren.”[32]

The Qur’an states, “God does not forbid you from doing justice and showing kindness from those who do not fight you on account of your religion and those who did not drive you out from your home.”[33] Therefore, this is the fundamental Islamic teaching on Muslim and non-Muslim relations. Islam tells Muslims to treat non-Muslims well. Islam always seeks to avoid a confrontation even if the Muslims are strong as in the case of Hudaibiyyah by accepting all the conditions of the treaty. Islam demands Muslims to respect the treaties: “Except those of the idolaters with whom you Muslims have a treaty, and who have since abated nothing of your right nor have supported anyone against to you. For these fulfill their treaty till their full term.”[34] Muslims are required to honor any pack with non-Muslims, even when they might not do the same, as in the case of the Jews in Medina who claimed, “We are under no obligation towards gentiles.”[35] Moreover, fulfilling a pact is considered a humanitarian duty in Islam, and Muslims are commanded to honor agreements and treatises. Even during time of war and conflict, Muslims are asked to follow certain rules, which impose some strict conditions for fighting. “Fight as they fight. No transgression.”[36] Islam does not allow soldiers to kill women, children, priests, and elderly in war, in other words, no innocent killing. Even on the eve of victory Islam encourages forgiveness of enemies. During the victory over Makkah, the Prophet forgave all his enemies.

It is wrongly perceived by some non-Muslims that Muslims are trying to overtake the countries. Some believe that Muslims want to create a different world order with Islamic ideologies. These are mere assumptions. Islam in fact encourages diversity in culture and religions. Indeed, Islam calls on people to think freely and believe in Islam without any coercion.

 The Qur’an affirms, “The Truth is from your Lord. Let him who will believe and let him who will reject it.”[37] The Qur’an also tells people that there is no coercion in Islam: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”[38] It is a firm conviction of Muslims that God has His one plan. He guides people as He would like, and the guidance is from God alone. “If it had been your Lord’s Will, all who are in the earth should have believed together. Would you Muhammad compel men until they are believers?”[39] We also read that the Prophet gave religious freedom for the followers of other religions. He made the treaties with people of Najran and the Jewish tribes in Medina. The Treaty of Medina which he made with the Jews was a classic example for his tolerance of all different religions. Islam always encourages Muslims to avoid any sort of confrontation to prevent bloodshed. For instance, in the treaty of Hudaibiyyah, the Prophet agreed to all the conditions that his opponents suggested. This was done to maintain peace and good relationship. The prophet knew well that the pagans of Makkah presented some strict conditions that were in their own favor. Yet the Prophet told his companions to strictly adhere to the conditions of this treaty in order to maintain peace. 


Islam and Religious Tolerance


Muslims have always been tolerant of different faiths throughout Islamic history. Jews, Christian, Hindus, Buddhists, and many other religious groups have been living in Muslim countries for centuries. In the past, no Muslim ruler wanted to wipe out other religions in Islamic history. Today, we see a lot of minority communities who have been in Muslim countries for centuries. It is against Islamic teaching to chase people out of their homes and native places. Yet, when Christians conquered the Muslims in Spain, the Christian armies and rulers gave three choices for the Spanish Muslims. Either to be converted to Christianity or to be chased out of the country or to be killed. More recently, when UN peace keeping forces were working in the Balkan war, some Dutch regimens were entrusted to protect Bosnian Muslims. When some Muslim men sought protection from Dutch battalions, they did not protect them; rather they let them out to be killed by Serbian forces. Court rulings in Hague found out that Dutch forces did not act with responsibility on this matter. In a subsequent trial, the appeals court in The Hague ruled, “Dutch soldiers acting as UN peacekeepers were partly liable for the deaths of about 300 Muslim men massacred near Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Yugoslavian civil war.”[40] Islamic teaching does not allow Muslim rulers or armies to behave like this. Protecting innocent people is an integral part of Islamic rule in war.

In fact, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to give protection and shelter when people seek protection. So, Islamic rule does not give any favoritism to treat people differently based on their faith in time of war. Muslims have been accused by many orientalists of spreading Islam by swords. In fact, they claim the concept of Jihad was instituted for this very purpose. This claim does not have any academic credibility. First, people cannot be forced to believe in any faith. Secondly, the Qur’an gives religious freedom to all religious groups. If the Qur’an gives religious freedom to believe or not, it does not make sense to say that the religion of Islam forces people to believe in Islam. Moreover, the Qur’an demands people to use their own human intellect and reasoning faculties to know the truth.[41] The Qur’an instructs people to ponder over the world around them. It tells the faithful to ponder over the divine creation in this world, to explore and examine the wonders of this universe. It tells them how the world around them was created with its all-natural wonders and marvels. It does not make sense to claim that this universe was created by accident or by any coincident as some atheists have claimed. This universe with its so many milky ways, galaxies and planets has been designed beautifully and perfectly. No sound person would say that this universe created itself without any Creator. We, Muslims strongly believe that it is one and only God Almighty Allah who has created this universe and yet, people call this one and only God with different names. But we Muslims call him Almighty Allah in accordance with what the Holy Qur’an reveals. We believe in Him and in His qualities as it has been described in the Qur’an. The Qur’an also encourages us to believe in God through our scientific investigation and intellectual inquiries. It does not ask people to believe in God blindly. So, no Muslim believes in Allah blindly.




         In conclusion, if it is the divine plan to have different religions, the claim that Muslims force people to accept Islam does not hold. Indeed, forcing people to believe in Islam by any means will go against the basic teaching of the Qur’an. Hence, it can be concluded that the Qur’an promotes a pluralistic humanity. We often find various kinds of flowers in a flower garden. The diversity in a flower garden with different fragrances enriches the aromatic atmosphere of the garden. Likewise, all different religions should enrich the world with their unique fragrance. Yet, people are fighting for the sake of religion and faith, an act contrary to good sense in this modern world. Indeed, freedom of expression is one of the fundamental principles of the modern democratic world.

Moreover, we could say that the actions of all-radical Muslim groups are wrong according to the Islamic teaching that has been highlighted in this paper. I have highlighted some wrong actions of some Muslim radical groups to illustrate that they have been wrong in their barbaric attacks on innocent non-Muslim brothers and sisters across the world. There is no justification in Islamic law to wage war on innocent non-Muslim people at all. Islamic teachings do not permit them to commit such barbaric crime in the name of Islam and Muslims.


 Muslim radical groups' and some of their wrongful actions/activities


Taliban: Destruction of two tallest Buddha statues in Afghanistan, if it was by them

Al- Qaeda: 9/11, if it was done by them

ISIS: Killing Non-Muslims of Iraq, Syria, and other Muslim countries. It was committed by them.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS: 7/7 London attacks, if was done by them.

Zahran cult in Sri Lanka: Eastern Sunday attack, if it was done by them. 

By many other groups, such as Buka Haram: Killing of non-Muslims in the name of Islam. 


Finally, Muslims cannot be judgmental about the faith and belief system of any one or any non-Muslim community. It is God alone who will judge people and their faith on the Day of Judgment. It is God alone who has the authority and the power to judge people. God has already made all the necessary arrangements to judge people in their eschatological life. According to Muslim faith, it is our firm conviction that God brings each soul into judgment on the Day of Judgment. So, these radical groups have no authority to pass judgment on the faith and belief system of people.





1) Abū Sulayman, Theories of Islamic international relations. IIIT publication. 1993

2) Abdel Haleem. The Qur’an: A new translation by Oxford classic. Oxford University press. 2020.

3) Ustaz Mansoor. Does Qur’an encourage (sic) incite violence? Al-Miskath publication in Tamil. Sri Lanka. 




[1] Sulaiman Rifal received his BA Arabic from the University of Peradeniya (1987), MA in modern trend in Islam, SOAS, University of London (1993), and PhD in Islamic legal philosophy, SOAS, University of London (2005). Presently, he is working as a freelance academic consultant, and has authored a number of articles and books. 

[2] Qur’an 2:136

[3] Ibid. 6: 90

[4] Ibid. 5:15

[5] Ibid, 2:131

[6] Ibid. 2:133

[7] Ibid. 3:19

[8] Ibid. 11:118-119

[9] Ibid. 5:48

[10] Ibid. 12:103

[11] Ibid. 88:21

[12] Ibid. 29:18

[13] Ibid. 26:3

[14] Ibid. 2:113

[15] Qur’an 2:109

[16] Ibid. 22:39-41

[17] Ibid. 2:190

[18] Ibid. 4:75

[19] Ibid. 9:5

[20] Ibid. 2:191

[21] Ibid. 9:28

[22] Hadith 385. This hadith has been narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[23] Hadith 2645, This hadith has been narrated by Abu Davood.

[24] Hadith 14736, This Hadith has been narrated by Ahmad.

[25] Abū Sulayman, Theories of Islamic international relations, 1993, pp. 80-83.

[26] Qur’an 2:286.

[27] Ibid. 9:36

[28] Ibid. 9:6.

[29] Ibid. 60:8-9

[30] Ibid. 3: 28

[31] Ibid. 4:144

[32] Ibid. 58: 22.

[33] Ibid. 60: 8, 9

[34] Ibid. 9: 4

[35] Ibid. 3: 75

[36] Ibid. 2;190.

[37] Ibid. 3;60

[38] Ibid. 2: 256.

[39] Ibid. 10: 99.

[40] The Guardian UK. 28/jun.2017.

[41] Ustaz Mansoor, pp. 50-95.