As part of my classwork for a seminar on Islam, I’m currently reading a book titled The Place of Tolerance in Islam. Some people, upon hearing the title, think it is an oxymoron. Perhaps you do too. Indeed, the dominant picture of Islam that we have here in the West is certainly not one of tolerance. And it can rightly be debated (and is in this book) as to whether or not there is a place for tolerance in the Qu’ran.
I only mention this because it seems to me that we tend to think of Islam as a monolithic faith, when indeed there are a range of opinions on various issues related to theology and practical living. There are, for lack of a better term, liberal Muslims, moderate Muslims, conservative Muslims, fundamentalist Muslims, etc. Sound familiar?
Of course, most in the Muslim world likewise tend to think of Christianity as a monolithic faith. Unfortunately, they see the West as a Christian culture, and thus Western culture is a reflection of Christian values. While many Christians seem to have the idea that this nation, for example, is at its heart a Christian nation, most of us who live here can quite obviously tell that it is not. We are able to distinguish between true Christianity and “cultural” Christianity (and, for that matter, secularism that depends on faint vestiges of a previously held worldview rooted in Christianity). When your impression of Christianity is rooted in a dubious history of colonial domination and exploitation, and current Hollywood films…. you tend to think it is an immoral and baseless religion.
The professor leading our seminar observed that, when someone compares his religion (whether Christian, Muslim, etc.) to another religion, he tends to compare the ideal of his own religion to the lived reality of the other. So the Christian tends to compare the ideal and goal of biblical teaching with what he sees at work in the Muslim world, somewhere like Iran or Saudi Arabia. The Muslim likewise compares the Qu’ranic ideal with what he sees at work in America. I thought it was an interesting observation.
So is there a place for tolerance in Islam? I suppose it depends on who you ask. If you ask an Islamic scholar at an American university, you will likely hear an affirmative answer. They will talk about certain passages in the Qu’ran that emphasize such a theme, they will emphasize periods in history when Islamic civilization was the most advanced in the world and tolerated religious minorities in its midst. If you ask a conservative imam, you will hear the opposite response, emphasizing different passages of the Qu’ran and other historical periods (like colonization). As things stand now, the conservatives seem to have the position of greatest influence, and the fundamentalists get all the press.