Religious pluralism in today's Muslim world

by Asma T. Uddin
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - In his 4 June speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, US President Barack Obama started his discussion of religious freedom by pointing out that "Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance". Citing its long history of protecting religious minorities as well as his own experience growing up in overwhelmingly Muslim Indonesia where Christians worshipped freely, he then drew upon the present, turning his attention to those vocal Muslims among whom "there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's". He urged his Muslim listeners to continue the spirit of tolerance that is reflected throughout their history.

The rejectionist Muslims whom Obama referred to are but one part of the vast Muslim world. Surveys conducted in 44 countries as part of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project show that people in Muslim countries place a high value on free speech, free press, multi-party systems and equal protection under the law. However, while many Muslims desire the type of pluralism that comes with Western-style democracy, those in the Muslim world who push for such ideas can face pressure, and sometimes threats of persecution, by both their governments and rival groups that see no place for religious freedom in Islam.

The discourse on religious pluralism and its political ramifications has roots in Islamic political and intellectual history and continues to be interpreted and re-evaluated today. For some, the core of this discourse lies in the definition of the "People of the Book", a Qur'anic term that refers to those to whom Muslims must extend full religious tolerance.

Many Muslims assume it covers Christians and Jews only, as those were the People of the Book during the Prophet Muhammad's life in 7th century Arabia. However, as well-known South African Muslim scholar, Farid Esack, points out in his article, "Muslims Engaging the Other and the Humanum", throughout Islamic history the term was not defined in terms of who was considered a Person of the Book; rather, it defined how religious groups treated those in need.

According to Esack, the main element differentiating "pagans" from the People of the Book in early Medina was the way that so-called pagans reportedly used institutional religion to exploit the disadvantaged. At various times in history, therefore, scholars depending on the time and place in which they lived considered groups as diverse as Hindus, Buddhists, Magians, Zoroastrians and Sabians within the broader categorisation of People of the Book.

Among lay Muslims there is a broad range of views on religious pluralism. A few see the religious other as the enemy. Others view non-Muslims as people to whom the message of Islam must be preached. Still others see people of other faiths as deserving of tolerance and mutual respect, while another group among Muslims goes beyond mere tolerance, believing that other faiths are equally valid theologically to Islam.

From all of these various groupings, the one that defines most Muslims is that of tolerance and mutual respect. A 2003 World Values Survey comparing 11 Muslim majority countries with several Western ones found that in all but one of the surveyed countries, public support for democracy including its concepts of religious pluralism was greater or equal to such support in Western countries. A more recent poll by the Gallup Center for Muslim studies representing 1.3 billion Muslims found a similar desire for democracy, human rights and freedom. Clearly, there is support both for religious pluralism, as well as political systems that uphold it.

There is a disconnect, however, between what most Muslims believe and the policies of many of the governments under which they live. While many Muslims want religious freedom as standard domestic policy, the member states of the Organization of Islamic Countries support measures such as the non-binding UN Defamation of Religions Resolution, which urges countries to legally and constitutionally prohibit the defamation of religion. For the most part, this seems admirable, but it is also seen by many as a measure to restrict freedom of speech, since domestically many of these same countries enforce harsh blasphemy laws against religious minorities and Muslim dissidents.

The real question, then, is not whether there is Muslim support for religious pluralism, but whether or not Muslim reformers will be able to persuade their governments to uphold it.


*Asma T. Uddin is an attorney and editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah ( This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek's On Faith and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) as part of a series on pluralism in Muslim-majority countries.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 28 July 2009,
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Other articles in this series

Reviving Pakistan's founding principles by Haroon Nasir
Islamic tradition and religious pluralism by Maher Y. Abu-Munshar
Saudi Arabia's push for religious dialogue by Fahad Alhomoudi
Indonesian pluralism should be guided by principles not politics by Irfan Abubakar
Lebanese sectarianism a mixed blessing by Luna Farhat