Unity and Diversity: Islamic Perspective

Dr Muzzamil Siddiqi

Posted Oct 26, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Unity and Diversity: Islamic Perspective

Dr Muzzamil Siddiqi

I believe that it is possible to have unity with diversity. In the world in which we are living today, and it is rightly called the global villageӔ, we cannot imagine having unity without diversity. It is not only that people in different parts of the world are diverse, but now we have a lot of diversity in our own cities, towns, indeed in our neighborhoods. People who live next door to us are often very diverse in colors, cultures and religions.

I am pleased that in USA there are many people who are thinking and exploring ways and means to develop a society where people of diverse faiths and cultures can live together in peace and harmony. American democracy is built on the principles of unity in diversity (E pluribus Unum). To a great extent we can say that in modern times United States presents a fairly good example of such unity in diversity or what is called today as pluralism.

As a Muslim I must say that we appreciate these efforts and we support them.  Our religion Islam gives much guidance on the subject of diversity, unity, harmony, tolerance and peace. I thank you for inviting me to share with you some of my views on this issue from an Islamic perspective.


Islam teaches us that diversity is a fact of nature and it makes the nature beautiful. God has created this whole universe with diversity. God says in the Quran:
See you not that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colors. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of color, and black intense in hue. And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colors. Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, who have knowledge: for Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving. (35:27-28)

There is diversity among human beings. They have variety of genders, colors and languages and multiplicity of races and tribes. These diversities are considered natural and are called ғGods signsҔ in the Quran (30:20-22). They are indicative of GodҒs creative power and wisdom and are good and healthy since they endow human life with richness and beauty. God wants human beings to derive benefit from this diversity and not to allow it to generate unhealthy schisms and divisions in their ranks.

God says in the Quran:
And from amongst His signs is this that He created you from dust; and then behold you are humans scattered far and wide. Among His signs is this that He created for you mates from among yourselves that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between you. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect. And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages and colors; verily in that are signs for those who know. And among His signs is the sleep that you take by night and by day, and the quest that you make for livelihood out of His bounty; verily in that are signs for those who hearken… (30:20-23).

The diversities of races, families and tribes also have a healthy and constructive purpose, viz. that ғyou may know each other. In the words of the QurԒan:
O people, We have created you from a male and a female and made you into races and tribes so that you may know each other. Surely the most honored of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous of you (49:13).

Instead of enabling human beings to know each other better, there is no reason why these diversities should create barriers, or cause animosities among human beings.

In addition to these natural diversities there are others that are part of the human societies and cultures. There are diversities of viewpoints. The QurԒan recognizes the individuality of each human being as well as the individuality of their groups and communities.

To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute. (al-MaŒidah 5:48)

Islam does not consider all viewpoints correct or of equal value. However, it is also the fact well recognized in Islam that very often the differences of opinions (ikhtilaf) are also a token of Gods mercy. If God had so willed, says the QurҒan, He could have forced people to come together to one point, but he did not do so. God did send His Prophets and Messengers from time to time so that the right path might be made clear through them. As regards the final judgment as to who followed the truth and who did not, that will be made known on the Day of Judgment by God Himself. In keeping with this principle, God forbade His Prophets and the believers from having recourse to coercion in religion. There is no compulsion in religionӔ, said the Quran (2:256).


Unity is also the need of human beings. But unity is not the total negation of diversity. Unity in Diversity means to explore and enhances common values that emphasize interdependence, equality, justice, human rights, and the sanctity of each individualҒs dignity. The goal should be to further a unified vision and recognition of the principle of unity and diversityӔ and of the fact that we all are fellow-citizens of an emerging global village. We must try to build a more inclusive community grounded in respect of differences based on age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, political affiliation and national origin.

What is a common denominator between the revival of historical grudges and armed conflict in the Balkans, the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Kosova and the alarming increase in the number of racial assaults in Western Europe?  What formal relationship, if any, exists between extremist or supremacist groups around the world?  What is causing genocide in Chechnya, the daily violence in Israel, constant clashes in Kashmir and troubles in Indonesia and other places?  Is there any link between the violence that targets individuals and communities in one country and discrimination against some races, colors and religions in another country?

The only immediately available answer is intolerance and the lack of respect for diversity. Intolerance causes economic injustice, political double standards and social oppression. Intolerance is on the increase in the world today and it is killing human beings on a massive scale. Intolerance raises many moral as well as political and economic questions. Intolerance is a major threat to peace and security. This issue is alarming many governments and the public.

Intolerance ignited most wars, fuelled religious persecutions and violent ideological confrontations. But the question is: Is intolerance inherent in human nature? Is it insurmountable? Can tolerance be learned? How can communities and states deal with intolerance without infringing on individual freedoms? How can they foster individual codes of conduct, without harsh laws and without policing peoples behavior? How can peaceful pluralism, multiculturalism or unity in diversity be achieved?

The UNESCO principles on tolerance say:
ғConsistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of ones convictions. It means that one is free to adhere to oneҒs own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behavior and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that ones views are not to be imposed on others.Ҕ

The respect for diversity comes when we recognize four important principles:

the dignity of the human beings,
the basic equality of all human beings,
universal human rights
fundamental freedom of thought, conscience and belief.
Islam recognizes all these principles. Sometimes people ask the question about Jihad. Why is there Jihad in Islam and what does that mean? Let me explain this briefly:

1. The word Jihad does not mean Holy WarӔ. It means struggle. Struggle on the personal level and struggle on the social level. Struggle to do good and struggle to remove injustice and oppression. Struggle could be spiritual as well as social, economic and political.

2. Qital (or military warfare) is permissible in Islam, but only when other peaceful means such as dialogue, negotiations and treaties fail. It is a last resort and should be avoided as much as possible.

Its purpose is not to convert people by force, or to colonize people or to acquire land or wealth or for self glory.

Its purpose is basically defense of life, property, land, honor and freedom for oneself as well as defense of others from injustice and oppression.

3. Basic rule of Qital in Islam are:

Do not begin the hostilities. Work for peace as much as possible.
Fight only those who fight, no collective punishment, non-combatants should not be harmed. Weapons of mass destruction should not be used.
Stop hostilities as soon as the other party incline to peace
Observe the treaties and agreements as long as the enemy observe them.
Islam teaches zero tolerance for injustice, oppression, and violation of the rights of other human beings. It has no tolerance for genocide. God says in the Quran:

ғAnd why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed) ? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: Our Lord! rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!Ӕ (4:75)

In order to promote unity in diversity:

1. Other cultures and religions should not be misrepresented. Educational institutions and media outlets should be held responsible not to propagate or perpetuate hate against any group of people and their recognized faiths and values.

2. Tolerance must be practiced on all levels: individual, groups and states. It should be a political and legal requirement. Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law.

3. There are several levels of tolerance. But I want to emphasize two levels here in:

Tolerance between the members of the same community and same religion. As we are aware people of the same religion have differences of interpretation and understanding. Although they have common sources, common principles but they do vary in their interpretation due to various reasons. Here we need inter-community dialogues and building of relations to minimize contradictions and inconsistencies in our thinking or behavior.

Tolerance between the people of different faiths and cultures. Here we need interfaith relations and dialogues. Of course we have core differences in our religions but we must try to understand each other. As we learn about our own faith traditions and communities, we should also learn about others. Someone rightly said, Understanding others changes us.Ӕ By understanding we learn the areas of commonalities as well as differences. We can learn the nature of differences and the extent of differences. We must look what kind dialogues could be of value, and what issues are most in need of respectful dialogue in these times. What concerns for the well-being of others should drive our efforts to reach common ground for action. Each group must encourage and facilitate shared responsibility to create a more sensitive and welcoming environment for our diverse groups.
Islam and Muslims, unfortunately, are still the target of stereotyping and misrepresentations. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights last week adopted a resolution expressing its deep concern regarding the stereotyping of religion, particularly Islam, as a faith that has been ғwrongly associated with human-rights violations and with terrorism. Although the language of the draft resolution appeared unthreatening as it used such general terms as ԓhuman rights, social harmony, and religious and cultural diversity, the measure narrowly passed with 15 members choosing to vote against it, and 9 others abstaining.

Belgium, speaking on behalf of the European Union, voted against the resolution, saying that they objected to the favoritism of Islam. ԓThe EU was concerned about the overall approach taken in this resolution. This resolution stressed one religion above all others, the Belgian representative said. It further clarified, ԓthe concept of defamation could easily be abused by extremists to censure all debates on religious freedom. While religious rights are guaranteed by the constitution in most European countries, a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and subsequently anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise, most notably in Germany and France. Both countries also voted against the resolution.

Surprisingly, Russia, whose military policy in areas such as Muslim majority Chechnya has often been described as inhumane and brutal, voted in favor of the resolution. Observers say RussiaԒs strong economic interests in many Muslim and Arab countries most likely contributed to its vote in favor of the resolution.

It is so unfortunate that the United States and Canada, two countries that are home to millions of Muslims, both rejected the resolution. In a vague statement read at the time of the vote, Canadas representative said: ғ[It is] troubling the degree to which questions of racism and questions of religious intolerance were mixed in that resolution in such a way that did not promote a greater understanding of the relationship between the two issues, rather confused them. The US vote coincided with the appointment of Bishop J. Delano Ellis as an advisor to a congressional panel on faith-based issues. Ellis, known for his disparaging remarks about Islam as ԓat best false and at worst ԓbloody and dangerous, has increased American Muslims concerns about issues of civil rights in the US. The vote also comes at a time when American Muslims are still disproportionately targeted by so-called anti-terrorism laws such as the secret evidence provision that is used during immigration hearings. The law allows prosecutors to withhold evidence against the defendant, a practice widely criticized as unconstitutional.

Let me conclude my talk with a few quotations from our diverse religious traditions on the love and care of others (in alphabetical order):

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law of the prophets.

Is there one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout oneԒs whole life? Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

This is the sum of duty. Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.

No one of you is a believer until he desires for others what he desires for himself.

What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary.

Regard your neighbors gain as your own gain, and your neighborҒs loss as your own loss.

That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto others whatever is not good for itself.

(This speech was delivered at the Annual Banquet of Interfaith council of Westminster, Garden Grove and Stanton on May 5, 2001 at the LDS Church in Westminster, California)