Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts

Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts​

Pluralism as explored in the context of Muslim societies has now emerged as a field of investigation on its own. It deals with the ways in which Muslims have understood themselves in the light of their internal diversity, vis-à-vis others and the ways in which they have dealt with these differences both historically and in contemporary time. Though many recent works by philosophers, political scientists, sociologist and others have made pluralism a major theme of discussion within intellectual discourse, this scholarly debate has, however, not yet reached larger audiences.

Participants discuss pluralism and its specific relevance to Muslim societies at the seminar titled, 'Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts'.

With the objective of encouraging engagement with the notion of pluralism and its specific relevance to Muslim societies, Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC), inaugurated the first of a series of seminars on January 24, 2003. The seminar was also the first public event organised by the newly established Institute, based in London. Welcoming the invitees, Dr. Filali-Ansary, Director of AKU-ISMC, and Dr. David Taylor, Vice-Provost of the University, called it a historic day and an auspicious beginning to an effort to initiate an open and meaningful intellectual encounters between scholars from various persuasions.

The seminar aimed at addressing and putting into perspective many questions and challenges surrounding the notion of pluralism. The growing interconnectedness of cultures and the urgent need to find ways of peaceful co-existence of people from different backgrounds has added premium to the orientation we adopt towards diversity. In this context, the term pluralism - alongside more traditional notions such as monism and relativism - has attracted a great deal of attention. Pluralism assumes that diversity is beneficial to society and seeks an active engagement with it. Though the concept is much discussed, there is no consensus about its utility. Some see it as a dangerous slide towards relativism while others see it as the most desirable approach to living with differences between oneself (or one's community, nation, religion) and others.

Two distinguished scholars spoke at the event, approaching the subject from a philosophical and historical perspective. Professor Adel Daher of Pace University, New York explored the philosophical differences between a political and militant interpretation of Islam and the vision of establishing a just, democratic and pluralistic social order. He concluded that political Islam as an ideology was incompatible with the requirements of the establishment of such a social order. He continued that while the actual socio-political outcomes of an ideology could be different from its formal consequences, it was important that we bear these in mind as part of our analysis of the issues.

Professor Roy Mottahedeh​, Gurney Professor of History at Harvard University, argued that though political Islam may be incompatible with pluralism, there are other traditions within the history of Muslim societies that can serve as harbingers of a contemporary rapprochement between Islamic faith and pluralistic outlook. In this regard, he quoted extensively from the poetic and humanistic corpus of Muslim societies, particularly from the Persian Sufi context, bringing out the underlying and implied tolerance and acceptance of differences.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion in which the reasons why the harbingers of pluralism in Muslim traditions have been eclipsed by the discourse of absolutism in many contemporary Muslim societies were deliberated upon. In conclusion, it was observed that the seminar had opened up various intellectual vistas into the issues pertaining to the importance and relevance of pluralism in Muslim societies. These provided the basis for taking the discussion forward in the next seminar in the series, which was held in May 2003.​​