Freedom of Religions

What are the Limits of Religious Tolerance

JANUARY 1985 LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE 11 WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE? By Louis J. Hammann Professor of Religion, Gettysburg College The question I want to confront in this essay haunts me as a person and drives my curiosity as a scholar. It was first brought into sharp focus by a comment of a friend of mine who is a member of a Chris- tian sect, known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The origin of the movement can be dated around the middle of the 1880’s. Current membership is over 2,600,000 in two hundred five countries around the world. Individual members commit themselves to “publishing” the good news of the coming kingdom of God. Often the witnesses are so insis- tent in their efforts to persuade the uninitiated of the imminence of the “end time” that they provoke irritation, even hostility in persons to whom they offer their literature and their message. As a result, the Witnesses have a bad reputation among many religious people in the United States, in Africa, in Europe, and wherever they “publish,” that is, perform their missionary duties. If I had allowed myself the usual negative response to the Witnesses whom I have personally known, I would not have found my friend’s comment at all intelligible. He made a distinction that one might not expect from a Jehovah’s Witness, given the reputation of Witnesses among a public only casually informed about the movement. My friend said, apropos of our discussion of the Witnesses’ theological vision, that he made a distinction between one’s being Jehovah’s witness and a Jehovah’s Witness. When I expressed some puzzlement over what he had said, he set out to clarify this observa- tion. If one is a Jehovah’s Witness, he thinks of himself as “belong- ing to a club.” Such a claim whether implicit or explicit, does not necessarily refer to the character of one’s personal piety. It means at most that a person claims membership in a particular group or move- ment. It need not involve any commentary on one’s religious disposi- tion. Instead the claim is made that one belongs to a sect or denomination, that one is a “card carrying” member of an organiza- tion. To be “Jehovah’s witness,” however, may mean something quite different. 12 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS JANUARY 1985 Now, of course, we are on the verge of an issue that not even all Witnesses may be clear about. Certainly any person who is a Jehovah’s Witness most likely thinks of himself as Jehovah’s witness. Hence, such a distinction may seem obscure or irrelevant to a serious devotee. He is what he believes and believes what he is. A Witness does what a witness does, but does a witness always and only do what a Witness does? The question may seem rhetorical, but in it, with ap- propriate labels changed, lies a problem for religious people that can- not forever be ignored. Can piety and commitment only be defined in terms set by an institutional structure? Or can persons express a religious disposition in such ways that institutional definitions are set aside? It is the view from inside a tradition that often suggests that an exclusive delineation of beliefs is required to satisfy a superordinate being. From the point of view of a Witness, Jehovah Himself must seem determined to judge an individual’s worth on the basis of affilia- tion. But it is obvious now that even for some Witnesses such stric- tures are not absolute, even within a traditional structure. Many (most?) religious movements have eventually written in a confessional clause that compromises the exclusivistic reflexes that seem almost natural to certain sects and denominations. It is certainly true that most of us on the outside of a particular tradition are quite sure that those on the inside insist that our spiritual destiny depends on living and believing within well established limits. More sympathetic attention, however, often proves this notion wrong. The Krishna conscious, for example, will often protest that religious virtue resides as well in those who sincerely believe in Jesus or submit to Allah. Apparently there is a mode of religiosity that is generic and those groups that have made for themselves a place in the “real world” are able to countenance that mode. Their own piety, of course, is one example of such religiosity. Therefore, it is more “im- portant” for persons to please a tolerant God than to justify themselves by adherence to the protocols of a singular tradition. Sincerity of commitment seems a more important consideration than creedal or practical orthodoxy. The sympathetic outsider is faced here with a real dilemma. Should he trust the protestations of tolerance for generic piety? Or should he be suspicious that such tolerance is a thin cover laid over a deep seated hostility shaped by a double edged fear on the part of those on the in- side? One’s smiling adversary may be afraid that a prospect may be lost if the sect exhibits too exclusivistic a stance. It is easy to offend JANUARY 1985 LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE 13 the sympathetic outsider if the definition of piety is too narrow. On the other hand, the insider may be moved by a fear that in the clash of cultures in a relativistic universe his own religiosity may not be so easy to defend. The certainty shored up by revelation may falter when the “argument” shifts onto a more mundane level where cultural relativism sets the rules of the discussion. I am sure that interactive situations, where issues of piety and commitment are at stake, are not this simple. Latent in such en- counters are the dispositions of individuals that can vary along a spectrum of great extremes. And in fact the delineation of a tradi- tion’s practical orthodoxy may not have been made with any great precision over the years. Even more puzzling to the outsider could be the fact that a particular tradition is systematically tolerant of others—even if only within well-established limits. That is, there may be reasons worked into the structure of beliefs that make ‘ ‘tolerance” a principle authorized by the founding revelation itself. One of the clearest examples of this possibility is Islam. Against the prevailing bias of many Christians, the religion of Islam, insofar as it is scrupulous about Qur’anic injunctions, is com- mitted to tolerance toward non-Muslims. Such tolerance may or may not commit individual Muslims to affectionate appreciation of others, but it is a religious principle based both on practical con- siderations and on a Qur’anic vision of an original unity of humankind. With regard to this last condition, sura 49, verse 14 is an exemplary statement: “O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” ‘ And if that were not clear enough, then sura 2, verse 257 leaves no doubt: “There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All- Hearing, All-Knowing.” Since “the Qur’an has laid down final commandments and….con- stitutes the final revealed Law of God,”2 these and comparable passages are sufficient to establish the principle of religious tolerance from Islam. 14 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS JANUARY 1985 In several passages of the Qur’an, one can discern as well a prac- tical basis for the revealed principle. An explanatory note to sura 2, verse 257 observes: “Compulsion is incompatible with religion: because…religion depends upon faith and will, and these would be meaningless if induced by force…”3 The Qur’an itself protests that “On the Messenger lies only the conveying of the Message. And Allah knows what you reveal and what you hide.” (5:100) Muham- mad, nor his followers, have any sanction from the revealed Message to be coercive in matters of religion. His duty is to present the Message that in its own power appeals to the mind and heart of those willing to submit. Beyond this, no one should go. In his essay, “Non-Muslims and the Umma,” S. Barakat Ahmad reviews the history of Islamic tolerance. He discovers that even hypocrites (munafiquri) and recanters do not have any punishment prescribed for them that Muslims are to inflict. Such persons have only their own conscience and their sense of the divine presence to contend with. Neither individuals nor the community’s authorities are advised to abuse or to coerce even the hardest of heart.4 Clearly, then, tolerance is the Message, even when Muhammad’s position in relation to the umma was secure enough during his time in Medina to carry out capital punishment if he had been persuaded to do so.3 An individual’s spiritual decision and destiny are shaped by Allah, and cannot be judged or coerced by his fellowman. But tolerance and non-compulsion, however reassuring, may not be a sufficient response for some non-Muslims. In a complex world where cultural relativism is inescapable, one may still wonder whether the distinction made by my Witness friend may prove tempting for Muslims. Can one be muslim without being a Muslim? Is the umma sufficiently large, its definition flexible enought to include those whose submission may not be exhibited ac- cording to the conventions of the Islamic tradition? Or is “muslim” only defined by reference to behavioral protocols and verbal pro- testations? What, after all, does it mean to be muslim? To be muslim, must one be a Muslim? How should a Muslim respond to one who claims to be muslim, even though he may not exhibit all of the conventional gestures that identify a Muslim? The questions proliferate easily and one does not know where to search for definitive answers that put an end to the questions. Even when we turn to the Qur’an the answer seems not to be decisive: JANUARY 1985 LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE 15 “Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity, and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him—Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward.(33:36) These are virtues that are not the exclusive province of those who formally submit to God according to the precise discipline of a Muslim. The level of generality of this passage makes it catholic in its inclusiveness. But does not a Muslim enjoy an identity that makes him a member of an exclusive group? Islam means the peace that comes from submission to God. Can anyone experience that peace if he does not practice the disciplines of piety and belief as prescribed by the tradition? I may insist that I have experienced that peace, though my disciplined behavior may not fulfill the expectations of Muslim friends. But surely a tradition cannot include rndisciminately any and all who offer the subjective assurance that they have expe- rienced “the peace that follows submission.” Why not? What, in the final analysis, allows or compels the discrimination that marks off the Muslim from one who protests that he is muslim? Is the answer to that question decidable on clear principle or is the answer deter- mined by what I would call “practical default”? That is, if the answer is not decidable unequivocally on the basis of the authority that prevails in the tradition, it may be decided by strictly practical considerations. For example, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV, currently the Supreme Head of the International Ahmadiyya Jama’at, said, in a speech delivered in Rabwah at the 1983 Jalsa Salana, that those who have not heard of Islam, will be judged ac- cording to the standards of their own religion. Clearly Ahmadiyyat is committed to religious tolerance on the basis of principle as well as on the basis of practical (i.e., political and psychological) considera- tions. Still, the Fourth Khalifa does not erase the distinctions bet- ween Islam and a general religiosity. He certainly knows the Qur’anic claim: “The Religion before God is Islam (submission to His Will): Nor did the People of the Book dissent therefrom except through envy of each other, after knowledge had come to them. But if any 16 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS JANUARY 1985 deny the Signs of God, God is swift in calling to account. (3:19, A. Yusif All’s translation) He went on to say that those who hear “the Message” will be rewarded with Islam and that the reward for good deeds done before one accepts Islam, is Islam itself. There is an implication in such a statement that Islam is tolerant—but not therefore inclined to com- promise its integrity as a well-defined historic tradition. It is most interesting to hear such statements come from Ahmadiyyat, especially in view of the political fact that more than one government of States whose population and culture are tradi- tionally Islamic have declared the movement “non-Muslim.” So we see a strange paradox: A revivalist sect of Islam is more tolerant of non-Muslims than certain powerful Muslim states are tolerant of a religious movement within Islam. And it was an Ahmadi Muslim who wrote the essay referred to above, “Non-Muslims and The Urn- ma,” in which the principles of tolerance and non-compulsion in religion are so thoroughly justified as part of the revealed truth of the Qur’an. The irony is compounded! What may “outsiders” say, especially those whose personal religious convictions allow them to affirm a piety and faith that cor- responds to, even if they do not closely imitate, “the system of beliefs and rituals based on the Qur’an?”6 When Islam is thought of “as a cultural complex, embracing specific political structures and legal social traditions,” must the outsider assume a hostility brooding just beneath the surface that renders “non-Muslims” forever suspect?7 Or may “muslim” refer to one who experiences Eimanl Is Eiman the name of a religious experience or is it limited in its reference to the experience that makes one a Muslim? The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam seems to come down on the side of the latter interpretation. In the article on “Iman” it declares: Hence in theology al-iman means: 1) the putting of one’s trust, the having faith, in Allah and his prophet and his message, and 2) the content of that message.8 But surely Allah is the creator God whose power combines with mercy to make justice possible in this world. What religious person would deny the vision of reality that is infused with such a convic- tion? May, then a person be muslim—without being a Muslim! Or are adjective and noun separated by a gulf of practical considera- tions over which no reliable bridge can ever be built? Within the orbit of Islam, the answer seems to be yes and no. JANUARY 1985 LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE 17 Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the fourth Khalifa, also said in the ad- dress referred to above that anyone may in this world have freedom “to belong to any religion.” When I heard that, I also sensed the im- plication that in the next world there will be punishment for anyone who rejects Islam (i.e., who does not become a Muslim^. Still, Muhammad is the counselor, the advisor; he is not responsible for the human choices made by individuals. What then are the limits of tolerance? How does the life of a per- son, defined by choices made in this world, relate to the cosmos? When one asks such a question in the context of a discourse that is realistic about the variety of religions that one confronts in contem- porary society, he must find it difficult to get an answer that is perfectly clear. Religious traditions, Islam among them, are often caught between principle and practice, between historic and sec- tarian versions of a tradition, between humanitarian concern and or- thodox definitions of “the faith.” And when one adds to such or- thodox definitions the special strictures of latter-day movements, the question seems to defy a practical answer. For even if commitment to principle remains, there is still the question of loyalty and adherence. Surely there are persons whose practical piety may not qualify them to pledge allegiance to “Islam,” even though their religious disposition would qualify them as “muslims.” Or must a tradition, such as Islam, circumscribe its tolerance so that the out- sider remains forever a stranger? The question forced on me by this dilemma will not go away. It haunts my response to Islam both in its generic (Sunni?) and in its sectarian forms. It is also a question that may intrude itself into any relationship with a well-defined religious tradition. What are the limits of religious tolerance? It is now clear, however, that this is a question that cuts in two directions. It challenges institutions to an intentional effort at self- definition. It may also provoke an individual to self-examination in order to determine the character and content of his piety. From the institutional side, that is, from the inside, the question is: Can we count that person as one of us? From the personal side, that is, from the outside, the question is: What must I do to qualify as one of them? If I am “religious,” am I eligible for the full range of benefits that come to persons who have been accepted on the basis of institu- tional standards (definitions)? Do I or do they set such standards? Are the standards strictly subjective or must not a tradition insist 18 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS JANUARY 1985 that there are objective standards given, for example, in scripture? Must I feel constrained by intuition or revelation, by personal ex- perience or historical process, by an authority or by self-confidence to declare that I am “religious” and hence, for example, “Christian” or “Muslim”? Or must these two kinds of adjectives remain forever discrete? When the sharp edge of such questions provokes me to decide where I belong or what I am, what counts as answers? My own preference or desire? Or must I submit to institu- tional prerogatives? From the side of the tradition, such questions change somewhat. What does being “religious” mean? Does it have the same meaning as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Buddhist”? Does being “religious,” whatever that may mean, affect one’s destiny or only his social relationships? Does personal religiosity bear a significant relationship to a superordinate reality or is it only to be defined in psychological terms? To put the question in dramatic language: How does heaven relate to earth? What, for example, is at stake in defining oneself as striving for the kingdom of God as an earthly phenomenon or as awaiting the kingdom of God as a transcendental opportunity? How can ordinary persons know the configuration of the reality that is hidden from ignorance, obscured by human imper- fection, or beyond the influence of merely human anticipation? Or must a particular tradition consider such questions as the mere presumption of human institutions and therefore correctively consign them to the level of personal transaction? And “meanwhile” it may be that something else entirely is going on in the universe that is beyond influencing by pious individuals or by religious institutions. What, then, permits an institution to be tolerant of those who are not precisely aligned in its orbit? What conditions must be met by such persons who are religious by their own will and decision, even though they may not conform to strict institutional protocols? It may be that such questions cannot be given definitive or general answers. Indeed, to limit the options of both institution and indi- vidual to a response of tolerance, itself creates apparently ir- resolvable confusion. Human persons actually exhibit a broad spec- trum of responses to the religious behavior of others. And that range of individual responses has its counterpart in institutional responses as well. Surely, there are persons who are hostile to some or all religious traditions. Others will exhibit disdain or even a benign indifference JANUARY 1985 LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE 19 when they must confront alternative ways of being religious. Beyond indifference one may find the response of tolerance, a response that seems to be minimally positive. In the context of a more discrimi- nating terminology, “tolerance” seems to be less than an “affirma- tion” of the particularities of some other “alien” religious tradition. But affirmation is still not participation, and this latter is what institutions must certainly hope for. Tolerance, therefore, is at best a “meanwhile” response, a tentative nod that does not sanction an individual’s failure or refusal to conform to the exact protocols of a tradition, nor does it indulge in indifference or disdain of others. “Tolerance’s” etymology may help us pin down its meaning on the emotional spectrum that ranges from “hostility” to “participation.” The word’s root is “to bear,” “to .lift up.” Hence in the complex world beyond the social simplicity of tribalism, the best responses that we can manage may be “to carry” each other. But one “carries” a burden. Even the virtue of tolerance, then, implies some effort of mind and heart. Tolerance is more begrudging than grace- ful. One who may, by his own protestation, be muslim could still be a “burden” for a Muslim. But that Muslim’s religious obligation seems to require—or at least allow—him to carry that spiritual weight at least for a while. Such an accommodation, however, still does not suggest a definitive answer to our puzzle. Tolerance, at its best, seems a waiting game, no matter the spiritual sincerity of the other. What, then, are the limits of religious tolerance? Are there no boundaries or are they well marked in principle though obscured in practice? For example, does assigning “final judgment” of one’s disposition to a superordinate reality avoid the practical issue of institutional self-definition? Or does such a ploy simply conceal a fundamental disdain for the presumptuous religiosity of another? Is a Witness merely being polite or perhaps indifferent to one who presents himself as being Jehovah’s witness as a mark of his sincere but generalized piety? In the context of the divine-human drama that engages us all, is it reasonable to insist that generalized piety, however sincere, makes one muslim—but not therefore “a Muslim”? How, then, are the limits of religious tolerance set? Are they strict- ly matters of practical (social) definition or are they constitutive of the revelation that has generated a tradition? In many, perhaps all, instances the practical answer to both questions is yes, especially if 20 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS JANUARY 1985 one acknowledges that it is reasonable to confront the issue from both inside and outside. The basis of the complexity of the issue is now evident. There are •at least two questions to be asked when we consider the limits of religious tolerance: Are the limits practical and determined by historical circumstances; are the limits integral to the truth claims that are the focal commitments of a particular tradition? But both of these questions are susceptible to answers from inside and from out- side a tradition, answers given or preferred by individuals looking in from the ouside and answers powerfully implicit in the convictional structure that provides the context for those who speak from inside. Furthermore, the limits of religious tolerance as set from inside and as experienced from outside are further obscured by the fact that, for some traditions, those limits may be preferred but not necessary, while for others they may be necessary though not preferred. For example, the humanists among us would prefer that traditions prac- tice the virtue of religious tolerance. If such a practice, however, compromises the integrity of a tradition, how can any outsider insist that tolerance is a necessary virtue? On the other hand, who in the modern world wants to suffer the accusation of intolerance, even when ideological consistency might seem to make it necessary? One looking in from the outside may not be able fully to appre- ciate such ambivalence, whichever arrangement it takes. But we could go on forever weaving this cloth of ambiguity—its warp the many distinctions that we have discovered, its woof the threads of individual psychology and of the actual content of traditional beliefs and practices. We shall, however, stop here and assess the prospects of ever finding or establishing the limits of religious tolerance. One thing seems certain. It is impossible to generalize about how particular traditions will set the limits of tolerance. It is unlikely that we can discover any universal basis for religious tolerance that will cut across all traditions. Each tradition, it seems, must find, in its own structure, “either the practical or ideological grounds for setting the limits of tolerance. In the on-going struggle for the hearts and minds of individuals, traditions must make complex decisions about where they will establish their boundaries and on what basis, prac- tical or ideological. Some will define themselves as exclusive enclaves of the elect, others as catholic communities dedicated to sheltering a very wide range of piety. Some will insist that the judgment on an individual’s decision is not determined by traditional protocols; JANUARY 1985 LIMITS OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE 21 others will make themselves the arbiters of spiritual fulfillment. In the midst of such uncertainty, how should an individual appraise his own intention and experience? Is there percolating in the universe a generalized piety and a universal virtue that individuals need only • imitate if they want to declare their religiosity? Or does the superor- dinate reality always and only exhibit a particular identity and, therefore, establish limits of justification that require behaviors that foreclose on religious tolerance? – And, again, the questions proliferate. The well where the answers lie seems to have no bottom, the labyrinth no center. What are the limits of religious tolerance? The answers depend on many variables and on frequent shifts in point of view. The variables are often substantive, functions of ideological as well as practical considera- tions. The points of view are functions of historical as well as psychological factors that are certainly not consistent from indi- vidual to individual. – Institutional needs as well may confuse the perspective from which one judges where the limits of religious tolerance ought to be set. It is evident to me at last that I have failed, in this essay, to pro- duce any generalized answer to the question, “What are the limits of religious tolerance?” I know that there is in me “something that does not like a wall,” so I am relieved by my failure; But I also know that I need boundaries within which I can live out my existence. To some extent, of course, I set my own. But the task is so frought with metaphysical consequences that I need help. When the help is delivered by religious traditions, I may resent the very help that I cry out for. How and where the limits of religious tolerance are set depends, in part perhaps, on my cry. It depends more, certainly, on theological assumptions that have to do with the nature of the superordinate reality that is at the focal point of a tradition’s vision of the universe. It depends also on a tradition’s deepest convictions about the nature and status of human existence. If we insist that a tradition must be very precise and aggressive in setting the limits of religious tolerance within which it will operate, we should appreciate the degree of difficulty of such an apparently innocent task. In the final analysis, we face some odd paradoxes: We desire the boundaries that we would deny. We chaff under the limits that we long for. We resent giving the tolerance that we insist on as a birthright. There is an old popular song that was sung in the U.S. as far back as the4950’s: “Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above. 22 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS JANUARY 1985 Don’t fence me in.” The danger is, however, that if we are not “fenced in,” we might die of starvation in the wilderness beyond the corral. Or we might lose our way and succumb to the hazards of the spiritual desert. Whom would we blame? Ourselves or the people who did not fence us in? Freedom (even religious freedom) is often the worst form of spiritual bondage. On the other hand, dare we risk confusing the protocols of historic traditions with “the truth that passes understanding”? We began with no casual question. We con- clude with no casual answer. NOTES AND REFERENCES 1. Except where otherwise noted, the Qur’anic quotations are from The Holy Qur’an, translated by the late Maulawi Sher’Ali (Pakistan: Quran Publications, Rabwah, n.d.) 2. Syed Barakat Ahmad, “Non-Muslims and the Umma,” Studies in Islam (Vol. XIV, No. 2):29 3. A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text Translation and Commentary (Washington, D.C.: The Islamic Center, n.d.), p. 103, note 3. 4. See Ahmad, pp. 29-39. 5. See Ahmad, pp. 33-34. 6. Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), s.v. “Islam,” p. 176. 7. Ibid. 8. Ibid., s.v. “Iman,” p. 167. SO SAID THE PROMISED MESSIAH I am a man with whom God converses. He teaches me from His own Treasure (of knowledge) and trains me with His personal attention. He sends His revelation to me and I follow that revelation. That being the case, what need do I have to leave this path and adopt other ways. Whatever I have said so far, I have said it under His Command and have never added anything to it from myself, nor have I fabricated anything about God. The end of a fabricator is destruction. Why do you then wonder about this dispensation. Do not be surprised at the work of God, for, it is He who created the earth and the skies. He does whatever He wishes and there is none who could query Him as to what He had done. (Malfoozat Vol. VI, p. 34)