Being a paper presented at a Sensitization Workshop on Religion as a Catalyst for Harmonious and Peaceful Co-existence organized by the Kaduna State Bureau of Religious Affairs on 15th and 16th September 2010 at the Women Multi Purpose Centre, Kaduna.
By Dr. Umar Muhammad Labdo
Department of Islamic Studies Kaduna State University Kaduna
In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.
Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to the organizers of this occasion who have given me the opportunity to share my view point on this all important topic. I especially thank His Excellency the Executive Governor of Kaduna State, Mr. Patrick Ibrahim Yakowa, for providing this forum so that followers of different faiths may come together to discuss issues and share ideas. It is hoped that this kind of interaction and exchange of ideas will continue until the desired peace and understanding are achieved.
Religious harmony comes about where there is understanding between followers of various faiths and denominations. Basic ideas and principles concerning each faith must be understood if harmony and unity are to be achieved. In this short discourse, I intend to share with you some of Islam’s principles on religious pluralism, differences in ethnicity, nationality and language, and indeed its emphasis on peaceful co-existence between followers of different religions and ideologies.
Islam’s View of Mankind
According to the teachings of the Qur’an, human beings are one and the same. They are a large family descending from the same father and mother: Adam and Eve. Their differences in colour, language and ethnicity are but superficial, intended only to help them know and recognize one another:
O Mankind! We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes so that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous. (Qur’an, 49:13).
The earth is the abode of mankind given to them collectively by their Creator, Allah (S.W.T). He has made it specious so that they may travel freely in any part of it, while developing it and exploiting its resources. (Qur’an, 67: 15).
Based on the above, people are supposed to feel at home wherever they happen to reside. They should be able to offer their contribution, make a living and generally be part and parcel of the area. No discrimination should be made based on ethnicity, language, colour or geographical background.
Islam’s View of “the Other”
We have seen that Islam does not recognize the superficial differences of colour, language, ethnicity or geography. However, Islam recognizes and considers difference in religion. According to Islamic scheme of things, mankind is divided into believers, i.e. Muslims, and non-believers, i.e. followers of other faiths. The latter are further divided into polytheists (idol-worshippers) and followers of prophetic traditions. The second group is closer to the Muslims because they share the same origin with them in that their religions originated from heaven and they follow revealed scriptures. Hence their appellation in the Qur’an: Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book, which is used to refer to Jews and Christians.
According to Islam, all three groups: Muslims, idol-worshippers, and the people of the book, are free to follow their own chosen ways and their judgment is with Allah, their Creator:
Indeed, those who have believed and those who are Jews and the Sabeans and the Christians and the Magians and those who associated with Allah – Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection. Indeed Allah is witness over all things. (Qur’an, 22: 17).
Muslims are instructed to mind their own business and to say to those groups:
Allah is our Lord and your Lord. For us are our deeds, and for you your deeds. There is no argument between us and you. Allah will bring us together, and to him is the [final] destination. (Qur’an, 42:15).
“The Nearest in Affection”
The people of the book, who share the same origin with the Muslims, comprise the Jews and the Christians. Of the two groups, the latter are nearest to the Muslims according to the Qur’an:
And you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant. (Qur’an, 5: 82).
They are “nearest in affection” to Muslims because among them there are priests (men of knowledge) and monks (men of devotion) and they are not arrogant. It is because of this nearness that Christians are given a special place in the Shari’ah:
- Muslims can eat meat slaughtered by the Christians.
- Christians can worship in mosques, even in the Mosque of the Prophet.
- Muslims can worship in any church, even in the Vatican.
- Muslims can marry Christian women, thereby making them mothers of their children and part and parcel of their family.
The affection between Muslim and Christians was such that when, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, Roman Christians fought a war with the Persian pagans and the former was defeated, Muslims grieved while Meccan pagans jubilated. The Muslims were consoled with the following revelation (in a Qur’anic chapter dedicated to the Romans):
The Romans have been defeated…But they, after their defeat, will overcome… And that day the believers will rejoice. (Qur’an, 30: 2-4).
Yes, Muslins, the Prophet and his Companions, will rejoice at the Christian victory. Can the Muslims then fight with the Christians for religious reasons? I leave the answer to my esteemed audience.
Religious Conflict: Myth or Reality?
The so-called religious conflicts in Northern Nigeria began only in the early 1990s. Before then, Muslims and Christians in the region had lived side-by-side in peace – for ages. Are these conflicts then religious? My humble opinion is they are not.
The bloody conflicts witnessed in this region in the last twenty years were politically motivated and they were instigated by forces outside the region. To prove this is very easy. Just review the Lagos-Ibadan Axis press of the 1980s and you will see what I mean.
If both Muslims and Christians understand their respective faiths well, differences in religion will never be a cause for conflict.
Difference in Faith a Fact of Life
Islam views differences in faith and religious beliefs as a fact of life. People will always differ; they will hold diverse opinions and belong to different persuasions and faiths. This is in accordance with the general plan of Allah for this life. Had he willed, he could have made mankind followers of one faith but he made them to differ and disagree for a purpose and a wisdom which he alone knows (Qur’an 11:118-119).
This is why, according to Islam, there is no compulsion in religion (Qur’an 2:256). People should be allowed freedom to choose the faith they want to belong to. They should make this choice of their own accord and out of their own volition. Should a man (or a woman) be compelled to accept a religion, this acceptance, according to Islam, will not be valid because belief in a religion has to be built on conviction and personal commitment.
Since disagreement between mankind is a fact of life and that as long as they remain human people are bound to disagree, the only wise thing to do is to understand human differences with a view to tolerating them. And there is no better way of doing this than engaging in dialogue with different sectors of mankind.
Dialogue Between Faiths
Islam offers dialogue as the just and sure way of resolving differences and disagreement and ensuring understanding and harmonious living between followers of different faiths and religions. And for any dialogue to be meaningful, it has to have some ethnics and guidelines governing it. In this respect, Islam insists that all talks aimed at convincing the other party must have the best of intentions and be conducted in a good manner (Qur’an 16:125). Dialogue must take place in an atmosphere of ease and trust, and must be calm, fair and unbiased.
Islam also emphasizes on the points of agreement between diverse cultures and beliefs as a way of ensuring compromise and reconciliation. Consider the following verse as an example:
Say (O Muslims): We believe in God and that which has been sent down (revealed) to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and to al-Asbat (i.e., the 12 tribes) and that which has been given to Moses, Jesus and that which has been given to Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to him we have submitted. (Qur’an 2:136)
What the Qur’an is teaching mankind in this verse is that they should always emphasize on the points of agreement rather than the points of disagreement. People should always magnify those aspects of their faiths and culture that tend to make them one. According to the Qur’an, no one will be a true Muslim without believing in all the Biblical Prophets, including Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them.
Religious Harmony and National Development
Surely no country can attain any meaningful development without peace and stability. And peace and stability are achieved through persuasion and dialogue rather than cohesion and imposition, hence the importance of understanding and dialogue.
The government and all stakeholders are therefore called upon to consider the following recommendations:-
- This country should stop being described and treated as a secular state because it is not. The fact is this country is a multi-religious entity whose citizens are deeply religious and highly motivated by their respective faiths.
- Government should recognize the influence of religion on the citizens of this country and the role religion can play in propelling the wheel of development in the country.
- More religious instruction should be given to children and young people at all levels of our educational system. Moral teaching makes better citizens and it can help eradicate social vices such as corruption, crime, drug abuse, etc.
- More support for policies, institutions and projects that facilitate interaction between followers of different faiths.
- Promoting youth and women organizations, NGOs and other civil organizations interested in religious issues and activities.
With these and similar measures, Nigeria will be on the road to religious harmony and peaceful co-existence between the different faiths and religions in the country. And this will pave way for a meaningful and comprehensive development.