The Islamic Golden Age developed multi-faith societies that significantly enriched the Islamic faith and the Orient, and we need to fight for that today.
I deeply understand and appreciate what a multireligious society provides me, a Black American Muslim. As an adult, my life is very different from my humble beginnings. I was raised in the Christian faith, my parents were Christian, the majority of my siblings and extended family are Christian, friends and neighbors growing up are Christian. Yet, living in a multireligious society, I developed friendships with men and women who are Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, Daoist, Spiritual, and atheist too. I also understand the US is a majority Christian country. As such, I had a complete melding of my “East-West” identity when I found Islam in China. I have other essays that go into much more detail about my several year journey into Islam, but needless to say, it has been an incredible one.
To begin, I want to remind us all, as human beings, we cannot discount our collective genealogy, cultural mores, and environs that impact our lives, actions and beliefs. We cannot easily forget the ethics and social mores that members of religious institutions that help promote them. It is these factors that unite us as a human family. Our diversity of religious histories brings meaning and understanding of our faith and practices in modern times. I hope our past, present, and into our future the human family shall have improved multireligious relationships, for the world today, we surely need it.
Anthropologically, oral and written histories reveal African, Chinese, Hindu, Middle Eastern, North African and Aborigine cultures developed great thinkers, and their religious philosophies influenced the religious outlook of their culture. We see too that in some instances, usually geographical, interactions between different societies led to similarities in their belief systems, while others more distant were sometimes in conflict, sometimes leading to religious wars. Thankfully, humans have evolved, but we are easily susceptible to devolving into hatred and war, a thinking that our faith keeps us from following such a dark path, a path filled with horrors of destruction and death.
The historic development of the Abrahamic faiths, rising out of Africa and the Middle East, major religious leaders like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad shaped our modern understanding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Now all three faiths co-exist in the global West, and over time have become embraced by a non-theocratic, secular society.
In becoming a Muslim, learning how Islam was an exceptional reinvention of the Abrahamic faith, which not only acknowledges the deep influence of their predecessors, Judaism and Christianity, but also encouraged pre-Islamic peoples to reject their tribal religious beliefs and clan devotion and worship a merciful and loving God, where each individual has “no compulsion” in how they worship. Prophet Mohammad and his early followers created a religious and political governance that was inclusive of Judaism, Christianity and paganism of the region. Therefore, from its earliest moments, Islam’s cosmological and theological foundation recognized a deep respect for each forerunner’s religious traditions and religious legal system, and their right to practice it as they saw fit.
Early 7th century Medina nurtured this vision and it thrived due to its openness and respect for diverse faiths’ belief systems. Such freedom of thought resulted in later generations of Jewish, Christian and Pagans becoming Muslim on their own accord. Sadly, this only existed for a few decades after Prophet Mohammad’s death, whereupon internal conflicts among minority sects claimed superiority over Quran’s interpretations.
Thus, the latter part of the 7th century through the 18th century, Islamic empire building developed regional centers of Islamic learning in places like Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, Tunis, Khartoum, Delhi, and many others. In these centers, Jews, Christians, and Muslims of Arab, Turk, Chinese and East Indian backgrounds developed multireligious coalitions and these Islamic melting pots significantly enriched the Islamic faith and the Orient. Great theologians, philosophers, historians, artists, musicians, poets and writers, doctors and scientists changed status quo thinking, often expanding the possibilities the world beheld, and humankind obtained intellectual heights, some of which continue to influences us today.
Several centuries later, the world has evolved into industrialized nations and people are living in more secular societies that honor multireligious faiths. When the United Nations passed the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and after several decades of review and revisions, the UNDHR has become the universal standard for respecting humankind’s humanity and the global environment.
The American civil rights movement inculcated many if not most of the standards established in the UN declaration of human rights, challenging the apartheid system that subjugated Black Americans. Dr. King’s call to religious leaders to build multifaith coalitions and not allow silence be their response to the injustices before them. These multireligious coalitions combated systemic racism. Later movements build multireligious coalitions for gender inequality and LGBT rights, all combating hatred in the US and globally. Though the struggle for human rights continues worldwide, it has been the multireligious coalitions that have continuously evolving to be inclusive of human beings, honoring their humanity and dignity.
As an American Muslim, my “otherness” as a Black gay man, places me at odds with Islamic culture. As a Christian, I was able to see the inequalities of most denominations of Christianity, their dehumanizing views on race, gender, and sexual orientation, strongly influenced my quest to find a religion that made me whole, complete. I found my sense of wholeness in an older understanding of Islam I found in China. I felt centered, included in the diversity of what Islam could mean to a person of my particular background and experience. I saw both religions had negatives and positives – nothing is sacrosanct, and depends upon one’s interpretation of textual teachings.
Today, as a Muslim who functions as a religious leader, my studies and expatriate living in multireligious cultures, a multireligious society is not foreign to Islamic theology, neither in the past or present, nor does it impede full-fledged citizenry in it.
MECCA Institute is dedicated to the revival, reform and enlightenment of Islamic theological thought. Our goal is to educate Muslims to reevaluate current Islamist exclusion-focused theology and governance, as well as encourage Christian and Jews to reject religious radicalism in their faiths, looking to prevent such thinking overtaking our country today. it is extremely sad that we have US political candidates who do not appreciate the multireligious aspect of our society. Banning Muslims and other diverse groups from entering our country is, in reality, saying we will ban a multireligious society.
Can we allow such corruption of leadership, whether in governance or religion, to create greater harms to us collectively as human beings? Our American society has become better over the past half-century, bringing major changes through religious leadership and religious institutional support. Working together for the collective good of humankind is an honorable pursuit to maintain a multireligious society. If we do not, many will suffer the consequences of diminished human rights and human dignity.
Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute, a progressive Islamic institute with a think tank and a school.