Tolerance in Islam

Written by Sheikh Salman al-Oadah

Tolerance is a beautiful word in every language and according to every culture. On a personal level, the word is often used to convey the idea of pardoning someone who does something wrong to you, transgresses against you, or differs with you in an inappropriate manner. According to this understanding, it is a great moral value. Its exercise is a moral victory for the spirit of goodness and decency over the spirit of evil that a person might be impelled to give in to.

Tolerance is the basis for the conduct that should govern people's dealings with one another. A person who persistently rejects tolerance is a person who insists upon causing harm, to himself as well as to others.

Religious Tolerance
We often hear the word tolerance used in the context of interactions between different faiths. In this respect, we find that the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) said: "Whoever wrongs someone with whom we have a covenant, or renounces him, or burdens him with more than he can bear, or takes anything from him without his cheerful consent – I will be his disputant on the Day of Judgment." [Sunan Abî Dâwûd]

It is a well-known fact of history that members of other faiths – including Jews, Christians, Magians, and Sabians – lived under Islamic rule for many centuries with their honor intact. Their rights and pledges were upheld. This can be compared to the way that King Ferdinand treated the Muslims of Spain when he wrested power from the Muslims who had ruled there for centuries. During the Spanish Inquisition, he expelled or killed the Muslims living under his rule.

The Muslims, throughout their history, did not treat then non-Muslims in that way, though they were in full power over vast expanses of land for over a thousand years. The non-Muslims always lived alongside the Muslims and were free to practice their faith. What theory can be better than what was actually put into practice by Islam for this long stretch of time?

Allah says: "Tell those who believe, to forgive those who do not look forward to the Days of Allah: It is for Him to recompense (for good or ill) each People according to what they have earned." [Sûrah al-Jâthiyah: 14] The Muslims here are instructed to forgive the polytheists who do not look forward to the meeting with their Lord. Allah also says: "Then bear with them (O Muhammad) and say: 'Peace'. They will come to know." [Sûrah al-Zukhruf: 89] "

We did not create the heavens, the earth, and all between them, except for just ends. And the Hour is surely coming. So overlook (their faults) with gracious forgiveness." [Sûrah al-Hijr: 85]

"Keep to forgiveness and enjoin kindness, and turn away from those who are ignorant." [Sûrah al-A`râf: 199]

"And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, 'Peace!'" [Sûrah al-Furqân: 63]

The commandments given in these verses of the Qur'ân are decisive. They show us that religious tolerance is an essential principle of Islam. It is a moral value set forth in the Islamic teachings and enjoined upon the Muslims long before the philosophy of tolerance entered into the discourse of modern Western thought.

The Prophet's Conduct

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) showed tolerance not only towards non-Muslims but also towards the hypocrites whose hypocrisy was blatant and manifest, and whose enmity for Islam was clear. They were an enemy from within the Muslim community. Yet, the Prophet (peace be upon him) pardoned Abû Salûl, one of the leaders of the hypocrites, numerous times. He even visited him when he fell ill. When abû Salûl died, the Prophet (peace be upon him) went down to his grave and dressed him in his own shirt. This was the man who openly abused the Prophet (peace be upon him) by scandalizing his family.

When `Umar saw the Prophet's conduct, he said: "Are you going to pray his funeral prayer for this man when he did all those things?"

The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: "O `Umar, I was given a choice and have chosen. (Allah) says: 'Seek forgiveness for them or refrain from doing so. If you beseech their forgiveness seventy times, Allah will never forgive them.' Yet, if I knew that if I were to do so more than seventy times that he would be forgiven, then I would do so." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]

Though permission for the Prophet (peace be upon him) to offer prayers for these known hypocrites was later repealed by the verse: "And never (O Muhammad) pray for one of them who dies, nor stand by his grave." [Sûrah al-Tawbah: 84] – the principle of tolerance embodied in his conduct remains.

Once a man came upon the Prophet (peace be upon him) with his sword raised, ready to strike. He sneered: "Who can stop me from killing you now, Muhammad?" Then the sword fell from his hand.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) picked up the sword, and said: "And now, who can stop me?" However, he did not harm the man. Instead, he then took the man to his Companions and had him swear a covenant neither to fight against the Prophet nor join with those who fight against him. The clemency and tolerance exhibited by the Prophet (peace be upon him) won the man's heart.

Cultivating a Tolerant Heart

If you want to know the true value of tolerance and clemency, think about all the wrongs that you have committed towards others. Think about how desperately you need Allah to pardon you.

Allah says: "Let them forgive and overlook. Do you not wish that Allah should forgive you?" [Sûrah al-Nûr: 22]

This verse was revealed on the occasion where Abû Bakr swore not to provide for Mustah b. Athâthah due to Mustah's involvement in slandering the Prophet's family.

Muslim scholars and preachers need to promote this great Islamic principle. Tolerance needs to be promoted and put into practice by all members of society, by people in all walks of life. It needs to be inculcated in those who govern and those who are governed. It needs to be addressed in sermons, in the classroom, and in public lectures. Muslim scholars and preachers, in their conduct, should be living examples of tolerance. They need to inculcate this noble trait in those who listen to them.

We need to speak about tolerance with those who share our views and interests as well as with those who disagree with us and criticize us. We need to show tolerance to them.

Each of us needs to learn how to show some clemency to his or her self. Some people are so distraught by the errors that they have made in the past that they carry the burden of their mistakes and never let go of it. They need to learn to let that burden go and put their past mistakes behind them. Likewise, they need to do the same for others. Learn to give, in charity, some of your dignity to those who wrong you. You will find that your heart will grow for it. You will feel happier. You will sigh with relief and not be so stricken by what they say.

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