Delivered in St David Lecture Theatre, University of Otago,
Dunedin, N.Z., Wednesday 5th September 2007 5.10pm.

"Towards a More Inclusive View of the Religious 'Other'"

A Muslim Perspective

Prof Abdullah Saeed

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentemen.

First of all, may I greet you with the most common greeting among Muslims, Assalamu alaykum, meaning, peace be with you.

I would like to thank Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group and Otago University Chaplaincy for their kind invitation for me to come and share some of my thoughts here today. My focus is on Muslims and how over time, Muslims have struggled with the issue of inclusivism and how many Muslims today are addressing the issue.

The issue of how Muslims see the religious 'other' is of fundamental importance to establishing peace among the people of the world. Muslims comprise roughly 20% of the world's population. Islam has the second highest number of followers after Christianity. In this talk, I will be arguing that a religious tradition with an inclusive view of the religious 'other' can play an important role in establishing peace in the world, peace between communities and peace between individuals. More inclusivism equals a better chance for peace in the domain of religion.

Islam, like any other religion, has a lot of expressions, interpretations, understandings and viewpoints within it. It has within it a high degree of diversity and fluidity. There are different theological schools, legal schools, philosophical schools and mystical orders. It is difficult therefore to speak about "the Islamic view" of a topic, or to say that "Muslims see the world in this way or that way".

In my talk tonight, I will not be looking at a particular Muslim society. What I am saying here would apply to many Muslim societies. My interest in this talk is to explore some broader issues relevant to the topic, without necessarily relating that to a specific Muslim society.

A key term for this talk is "inclusive" or "inclusivist". I am using this term in a very specific way. By inclusive or inclusivist I mean an attitude of openness towards people of other faiths through:
recognition of equality of all human beings as creations of God regardless of their religious beliefs;
recognition of mutuality and interdependency of all people;
recognition of all human beings as having access to God and Truth;
recognition of the need to be humble in one's claims to superiority of one's faith over that of others that may lead to discrimination or dehumanisation of the religious other;
recognition of the need to respect other people's faiths

On the other hand, I see "exclusivism" as the lack of openness and non-recognition of equality, mutuality, interdependency as well as strong claims of superiority and lack of respect that leads to dehumanisation of the other. Both exclusivism and inclusivism could be on a continuum: from soft to strong.

Tonight, I argue that the foundation texts of Islam (the Qur'an and the Traditions of the Prophet) provide ample support for a more inclusive view of the religious "other". I will also counter the view of certain Muslims who hold strong exclusivist views in relation to people of other faiths. I argue that such exclusivist views are highly problematic from a Qur'anic and prophetic perspective. They are equally problematic when looked at from the perspective of contemporary concerns and needs.

The current era is a time when people of all faiths need to come together. It is increasingly obvious that we are all participants of an increasingly globalised world. As such, there are plenty of reasons for Muslims and all of us - to adopt inclusivist interpretations that are compatible with contemporary needs and concerns of today.

As we shall see in the talk, many Muslims, like people of other faiths, are increasingly adopting such interpretations and are justifying them on the basis of the Qur'an and Traditions of the Prophet (which are the most authoritative texts in Islam). These Muslims do not regard adoption of inclusivist interpretations as lacking in legitimacy or authority. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For them, these interpretations are not new either.

Throughout Islamic tradition, there have been currents of thought that have always been inclusive. I have in mind here the very many Muslim mystics and their followers (sufis) who often maintained the inclusivist trend alive. What is different today is that a large number of non-sufis are also justifying the adoption of inclusivist interpretations. In a sense, this is a going back to the very early Islamic tradition of inclusivism. It is not a foreign concept.

Perhaps some members of the audience might find it hard to accept that Islam and the various expressions of it are conducive to inclusivism and peace. So much violence is being perpetrated in the name of Islam. Violence in places such as Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and a whole range of other regions in the world; suicide bombings, killings, and destruction are carried out in the name of Islam. Exclusivist rhetoric coming from people like Bin Laden and his supporters are widely known. These events and rhetoric are communicated and broadcasted daily across the globe. While the Islam that is portrayed on our television screens is accepted by some as the total reality of Islam, the vast majority of Muslims know this to be false.

Let me look briefly at inclusivism in early Islamic texts and practices

The commitment to be inclusive of the religious "other" and to live peacefully with other religious traditions, appear in key Islamic texts such as the Qur'an and prophetic traditions.

Perhaps a couple of examples might be sufficient. One such example is the Muslim belief in the continuity of the prophetic tradition (from the beginning of human presence on earth) and that Islam is not a unique religion.

From the very beginning, Prophet Muhammad believed that he was someone who was in the lineage of prophesy and prophethood. He never claimed that he came with a religion that was completely unique. His message was similar to that of other prophets who had come before him. This message could be reduced to the recognition of a divine being, and the call for human beings to live an ethical and moral life in the light of the teachings of the divine being.

Prophet Muhammad explained his mission as recorded in one of his traditions:

"The comparison between me and the preceding prophets is similar to a group of people who took part in building a house and completed it but for an empty space for one block or brick. Onlookers admired it and said in astonishment, 'What a beautiful mansion, if it were not for the place of the missing brick.' I have been this brick and I am the last or the seal of the prophets. Muhammad then emphasized, 'I am only one brick of it'"

The Qur'an emphasises this message of continuity. It says:

"We sent you [Muhammad] Inspiration to know Our will as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him. We sent Inspiration to Abraham, and Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. Of some Messengers We have already told you, but there are others of whom We have not yet spoken.", Q. 4:163-164.

There are many such examples where references to biblical prophets, Judaism and Christianity are mentioend in the Qur'an. True. Other religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism were not mentioned in the Qur'an, not because the Prophet and the first Muslim community had no interest in them. These religions did not have a presence in Western Arabia.

This respect for other prophets and religions is reflected in the Qur'an where there is no strong criticism of a prophet as such. Nor is there criticism of the religions of Christianity or Judaism. On the contrary, for example, in the case of Jesus, the Qur'an says:

"The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was a Messenger of Allah, and His Word which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him." Q. 4:171.

This inclusive view of the other is also evident even when it comes to protection of religion and places of worship. In one verse, the Qur'an justifies warfare in defense of religion and places of worship, not just those of Muslims but also that of others:

Permission to fight is given to those who are being fought because they (believers) have been wronged, and surely, God is Able to give them (believers) victory - those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly only because they said: "Our Lord is God" - For had it not been that God checks one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, wherein the Name of God is mentioned much would surely have been pulled down. Q. 22:39-40

This generally inclusive view of the religious other does not mean that the Qur'an does not criticise certain Jewish or Christian groups. But that criticism should not be seen as criticism of all Jews or all Christians, or the Jewish faith or Christian faith as such. The Qur'an criticises many Muslim groups and even the Prophet himself.

Fundamental beliefs that form the basis of inclusivity

This Qur'anic view of inclusivity is much more consistent and coherent than many of us Muslims would like to acknowledge or accept.

I propose that the foundation for inclusivism and peace in Islam is based on four basic ideas:

First, all human beings of all ethnicities, colours, languages are part of one family, with one father and mother.

Second, the One God does not want all people to be replicas of one another; differences in religion, language, colour, race are very much part of God's vision of humanity.

Third, God provided guidance to all people on earth, not just a select few.

Fourth, human beings are commanded to conduct their affairs based on fairness, justice and equity.

These foundations certainly allow for acceptance of people who belong to other religious traditions.

Does this mean that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad Muslims did not develop exclusivist ideas in relation to people of other faiths?

Despite the great ideas that support an inclusive view of the religious other, many Muslim scholars in the first four centuries of Islam adopted a range of exclusivist positions. Examples of such exclusivist positions include
the belief that Islam as it came be understood in the post-prophetic period is the final, authentic religion and that it is superior to any other religious traditions that may have existed;
that Christianity and Judaism, as religious traditions lacked "validity" as they were supposed to have been distorted;
that Muslims, as a religious group, were superior to people of other faiths and therefore in Muslim societies preferential treatment should be given to Muslims.

Of course, these views were not necessarily unique to Islam at the time. Similar ideas existed in other religious traditions including among Christians. This reflects the mindset of people of many religious traditions in pre-modern times

The question is, if Islam had all those inclusivist views that I talked about early on, why did Muslims develop such exclusivist views?

In order to answer that question, we have to go back to early Islamic history. I argue that the exclusivism that we see in Muslim thinking in relation to the religious other is a reflection of certain socio-political developments in the post-prophetic period. These socio-political developments can be summarised in several ways.

After Prophet Muhammad died in 632, the Muslim state that was established by the prophet between 622 and 632 in Medina, in Arabia, went on to spread its influence largely through political and military means. Muslim armies went out of Arabia and conquered much of what is known as the Middle East, North Africa, and right up to the borders of India, Central Asia and Southern Europe. These conquests occurred within 100 years or so after the death of the Prophet. [Map]. In this process, lands that were occupied and controlled by Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus came under the control of Muslims.

The Muslim rulers who governed the conquered regions were not particularly interested in converting the populations but were content with the political and military rule that they initiated. As time passed, gradually and slowly people in those regions readily converted to Islam. However, it took close to 200 years or so after the initial conquest for people of the region on a large scale, to convert to Islam.

However, a sense of superiority emerged among Muslims with the sudden and very rapid spread of Arab Muslim rule right throughout the known world at the time. Their ability to successfully establish an empire called caliphate, and their ability to maintain their rule, an Arab Muslim minority rule over a largely non-Muslim majority, from North Africa to the borders of Pakistan today, helped nurture these feelings of religious superiority.

Frequent debates existed between Muslims and Christians. Some of these debates occurred in the presence of the caliphs and rulers. In such debates both sides attempted to show their supremacy. In one debate, bishop Theodore Abu Qurra asserts something and the Muslim theologian protests but the Caliph al-Ma'mun says to the bishop:

"This is a court of justice and equity: none shall be wronged therein. So advance your arguments and answer without fear, for there is none here who will not speak well of you! Let everyone speak who has the wisdom to demonstrate the truth of his religion"

Competition between Muslims and other more established traditions like Christianity was tough and this competition may also have helped in developing the exclusivist views (as a defense mechanism against external threats of a more theological nature).

That overall social and political environment helped reinforce the idea that "Islam" as it came to be known in the post-prophetic period, was supreme, and was superior to other religious traditions. It is this basic idea that somehow helped shape the thinking of many Muslim scholars who interpreted the Qur'an and the Prophet's teachings in the second, third and fourth centuries of Islam in relation to the religious other.

There seem to be two key factors involved in this hardening of attitudes among Muslims in the post-prophetic period. One is the degree of "threat" that exists or perceived to exist to the religion or religious community from other religious traditions (be it political or theological); and the other is the degree of familiarity with other religious traditions within the religious establishment and even among common people. The higher the degree of perceived threat and the lower the degree of familiarity with other religious traditions the more exclusivist the positions become. Similarly the lower the degree of perceived threat and the higher the degree of familiarity, the more inclusivist the positions become.

The most exclusivist positions in Islamic tradition comes from places/times where this degree of threat was highest.

[I will discuss there juristic positions on Muslim interaction with non-Muslims: details in the Powerpoint presentation]

I see many exclusivist positions as simply defensive mechanisms to "protect" the religion and religious community from the perceived threats (be they political, military or theological).

Tension between the inclusive and exclusive positions

But still, with the overwhelming majority of the Islamic texts inclusive in nature, significant tension existed in Muslim thought and practice. I will give here one example of exlusivism and the other one of inclusivism. In order to highlight this tension, let me give the exclusivist position first.

1. The teaching that Jewish and Christian scriptures were distorted and therefore lacked authority and legitimacy.

In the first few centuries of Islam, Muslims developed the view that Jewish and Christian scriptures had gone through certain distortions and corruption, and therefore cannot be accepted as valid. This is despite the fact that the Qur'an did not declare them as such. While there are differing views about the details, many Muslims accept this doctrine in its crude form, even though a number of Muslim theologians, both past and present, have had a more sophisticated understanding of it.

The doctrine of the distortion of Jewish and Christian scriptures was developed doubtless based on the interpretation of a few verses of the Qur'an and therefore it is claimed to have some textual authority. But some Muslims see a contradiction between the Qur'an's alleged references to "distortion" and its unmistakable respect and reverence for Jewish and Christian scriptures as "coming from God".

Indeed, the Qur'an says that the scripture of Christians contains wisdom, guidance and light and asks them to judge by what God revealed in it:

Let the people of the Gospel judge by what God hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by [the light of] what God hath revealed, they are [no better than] those who rebel (Qur'an 5:47).

Many more verses deal with this issue and always show utmost respect for the sciptures. In the Qur'an there is no verse that openly denigrates the scripture of the Christians or of the Jews. Any criticism was directed towards certain Christians or Jews for their sectarian interpretations. This led a number of Muslim theologians, even someone like Ibn Taymiyya, to consider the wholesale rejection by Muslims of the Christian and Jewish scripture as unwarranted.

It could also be argued that the doctrine of distortion developed in the context of competition between Muslims and Christians in the first three centuries of Islam. This was a time when Muslims were in the ascendancy, politically, militarily and economically. Competition between Muslims and Christians in particular was tough. Each religious establishment found itself in an environment that encouraged the undermining of the integrity and authority of the other. In a sense it was a product of the socio-political realities of the time.

2. Recognition of the "People of the Book" as a special category of people

The inclusivist position holds that the "People of the Book" form a specific category of people or citizens in a Muslim state. In classical Islamic law, the People of the Book, usually refers to Jews and Christians. Their rights are protected; they have the freedom to practice their religion; they are exempted from participating in the military activities of the Muslim state and they have the right to govern their lives according to their religious, legal norms. The Muslim state should not interfere in their religious beliefs and they have the freedom to maintain their religious traditions. This recognition is not extended to, say, pagan Arabs, as their polytheistic belifs had no connection to divine guidance.

The point is that even though Muslim scholars adopted certain exclusivist positions with regard to the religious other, they still maintained this category of People of the Book who should be protected by the Muslim state. However, this protection does not necessarily equate to full citizenship rights of Muslims (in the pre-modern period).

The Religious Other and Islam today: Changed context leading to more inclusive views.

The question now is what is the situation today among Muslims in relation to how Muslims see the religious other? Of course, there is no single view among Muslims. But a multiplicity of views.

I come back to the issue of socio-political context again. Today, what we are witnessing is a very different environment to that of the premodern period. Some of the key characteristics of today, compared with the premodern period, could be listed as follows:

Among the observations that we could make today about the context in which Islam functions is the high degree of difference in the social, political and intellectual contexts of today, compared to the premodern period.

One of the most important differences is the establishment of nation-states and equal citizenship which members of the nation state enjoy. This is regardless of religious affiliation of the citizens. We have moved away from premodern distinctions made on the basis of religious affiliation in favour of a secular model. This places all citizens on a equal footing.

Second, there are certain norms that nation states are expected to subscribe to. In the context of rights, for instance, the United Nations and its many organs have facilitated the development of such norms across the globe, from civil and political rights to economic and social rights. Almost all states today would give some recognition to most rights specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), even though they may not be comfortable with some rights.

Third, the widespread adoption of interfaith dialogue among major religions of the world which brings together religious traditions and leaders in both local and global settings. Though there is still some resistance to this, it is an idea that has become important in the global discourse between different cultures.

Fourth, the relatively high degree of intellectual freedom that exists among most peoples of the world.

Fifth, the high degree of interaction among people of all faiths particularly in multicultural and multireligious societies as it is the case, for instance, here in NZ.

Sixth, the high degree of religious freedom that exists for people of all religious traditions at least in most parts of the world including in the West.

Seventh, the availability of information about other religious traditions and other peoples through increased communication, Internet and the like, facilitating global cultural transmission.

Finally, unlike the pre-modern period, today there is a fairly significant shift to a more individual, personal approach to text and interpretation and religion in general. Such an approach helps individuals go back to the scripture, texts and traditions and interpretations and approach them from their personal standpoint. The widespread education and literacy levels among Muslims have all helped to democratise the understanding of scripture and tradition.

All of this means that the socio-political context in which exclusivist positions were developed in the premodern period is no longer feasible in the modern environment. These developments have shifted Muslim exclusivist thinking on the issue of the religious other. What we are beginning to see is a process that marginalises the exclusivist interpretations and strengthens and reinforces the inclusivist reinterpretations.

This is more evident among Muslims who are known today as "progressive ijtihadis". Ijtihad, is an Arabic word, meaning the struggle to come to a reasoned view point. Ijtihadis are people who are critical of received wisdom. Their outlook is philosophical rather than ideological and political. One of the most important characteristics of progressive ijtihadis is their argument that Muslims have to rethink, reassess and reinterpret some of the key ideas and doctrines that may have emerged in the premodern period, that are not compatible with modern concerns and needs. For progressive ijtihadis, some of the exclusivist views about the Religious Other fall into this category.

Progressive Ijtihadis and inclusivism

Progressive ijtihadis come from a range of backgrounds and intellectual orientations. It is not a movement but a broad trend with a variety of voices in it. It includes Muslim modernists and reform-minded traditionalists. Many leading figures of progressive-ijtihadis are based in the West and in Muslim countries where there is a reasonable degree of intellectual freedom. The most important characteristics of those associated with this trend are:

They adopt the view that many areas of traditional Islamic law require substantial change and reform in order to meet the needs of Muslims today. They believe in the need for fresh ijtihad and a new methodology of ijtihad to deal with modern problems. Many combine traditional Islamic scholarship with modern Western thought and education They hold firmly to the view that social change, whether at the intellectual, moral, legal, economic or technological level, must be reflected in Islamic law. They display neither dogmatism nor a strict attachment to a particular school of law or theology in their approach. They place a great emphasis on social justice, gender justice, human rights and harmonious relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. They adopt an approach to interpretation of the Qur'an and the foundations texts, which could be referred to as "Contextualist"

Progressive ijtihadis want to bring change in their communities and beyond through reinterpretation of the Islamic texts and tradition. Some progressive ijtihadis argue their aim is to enact or perhaps re-enact the values of justice (adl), goodness and beauty (ihsan) in their societies and the world at large.

This overarching vision, which they perceive to be at the heart of the Qur'anic ethos, requires an engagement with both the Islamic tradition and modernity on the issue of human rights, particularly around the theme of social justice, gender justice and pluralism. Towards the aims of pluralism and living in peace in a pluralist world, the progressive ijtihadis believe that Muslims deserve an interpretation of Islam that enables them to restore and in some areas maintain their compassionate, humane, selfless and generous selves in interpersonal relations and exchanges with others.

Concerned about the rise of exclusivism and the violent actions done in the name of Islam, they aim to retrieve the Islamic discourse from what they consider to be "fanatics", and hope to engender a reinterpretation of Islam that will steer Muslims away from such a mindset. They like to see an open and safe space to undertake a rigorous, honest, potentially difficult engagement with tradition, and yet remain hopeful that conversation will lead to further action.

The vision that emerges from Progressive Ijtihadis in relation to people of other faiths can be summarised as follows:

Recognition of the need to learn about other faiths as familiarity with faiths that one engages with or interacts with is seen as conducive to better relations between Muslims and others. They recognise that historically many Muslims were not particularly keen on learning about other faiths largely because the feeling among many Muslims that was there was not much to learn from other faiths.

The need to reflect on past practices in Muslim relations with others and acknowledge mistakes where that existed, and the need not to dwell on past practices which may not be seen fair or acceptable from the twenty-first century perspective, and move to more appropriate ones from today's perspective.

An emphasis on common concerns and needs and work together with people of other faiths to promote justice, fairness and equity in the society and engage in projects that benefit the entire community regardless of the faith of the members of the community.

Acknowledgement of the similarities that exist between Islam and other religions in our quest for our journey to God. God is God of all, and all of us one way or another are attempting to connect to God.


What we are seeing today among Muslims, particularly among Progressive Ijithadis, is a significant emphasis on the inclusivism that we find in the holy Scripture of Islam and in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. The overall environment and socio-political context in which Muslims function today, be it in the West or in traditional Muslim societies, is facilitating the rethinking of some of the exclusivist views and ideas that developed among Muslims in the premodern period.

For me, strong forms of exclusivism are an obstacle to peace and peaceful relations among people; the more we can encourage inclusivism the more religious tradition becomes conducive to peace. In this, as I argue, the amount of creative reasoning in the contemporary socio-political context that is going on among Muslims is quite considerable and are already bearing fruit.

This is happening more and more and in the most visible forms in Western countries where Muslims have migrated. These Western societies are multicultural and multireligious are where Muslims have to face the issue of religious pluralism, often within a secular context, on a day-to-day basis. And this is where we also find much of the progressive ijtihadi thinking, partly because of the context and partly because of the high degree of intellectual freedom that exists there to explore and develop such ideas.

This inclusive view of the world does not mean that all religious traditions will become replicas of one another. They all will retain their unique characteristics but are likely to lead to rethinking some of the most extreme exclusivst positions for the sake of peace and harmony among all peoples. Such a position will bring people of all faiths together on a common platform, joining as human beings, first and foremost, before they are labelled as Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other term

I would like to end my talk with one Qur'anic verse: "O humankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another" (49.13).

Thank you.