Islam, Christianity and Pluralism by Rowan Williams

O mankind! We have created you [all] out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and communities, so that you might come to know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold.
God is AllKnowing, AllAware. (The Qur’an, 49:13)
From one ancestor He made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and He allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for Him and find Him—though indeed He is not far from each one of us. For ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’.
(acts of the apostles, 17.26–28)
The word ‘pluralism’ is used very frequently and very freely these days as a characterisation of the kind of society we live in; but like many words used freely and frequently the more you look at it the less clear it becomes. In this essay I want to distinguish three meanings to the word pluralism, and I want to explore the different reactions which both Christians and Muslims might have to these different senses.
To put it briefly, I believe there is one meaning for the word pluralism which Christians and Muslims ought to be equally worried about; that there is another sense to the word which is approached very differently by the two faiths but which they ought to be discussing more deeply and frequently. And I believe there is a final sense to the word pluralism around which they might agree that there is something to be done and a constructive agenda that lies ahead. So let me set out what I understand by those three meanings for the word ‘pluralism’.
The first has to do with religious pluralism.Those of us familiar with the teaching of theology and religious studies will know that attitudes to the plurality of faiths in the human world are often categorised under three headings – exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist. Exclusivists believe that only their faith is true and all others are false, inclusivists believe that their faith is true and all others  are included within it in some sense, and pluralists believe that all faiths are true, period. Religious pluralism in that third sense is, I believe, something about which Christians and Muslims ought to be rather suspicious – the notion that without any qualification we can say ‘all faiths are equivalent but different roads to God’ is a position which causes great difficulties, particularly to Christians and Muslims with their strong sense of the historical particularity of the origins of their faith and of the universal missionary imperative which their practice embodies. The pluralist position in religious studies has probably more to do with the liberal Christianity of the late twentieth century than anything else, but you will occasionally  find self-styled  liberal Muslims saying something rather similar. But most of us belonging  to these two families of faith would agree that there are areas of plain disagreement between our faiths – disagreement which, precisely because it takes place within a sense of shared history and culture and tradition, is all the more painful in many ways, and also, if I may put it rather academically, all the more interesting and stimulating to explore. To use a phrase I have occasionally used in this context before, Christianity and Islam – and indeed Judaism as well – are part of a long ‘family quarrel’ within the family of the children of Abraham. As with many family quarrels it can be bitter at times, but as with family quarrels there remains a great deal of territory in the house that you still occupy together. But I don’t believe that religious dialogue is ever advancedby denying difference. I think there is a kind of arrogance at times in the assumption that ‘I can tell you what you really mean’; and I deplore the way in which some of those who use the language of religious pluralism are so ready to tell absolutely every practitioner of every faith on the globe what they’re really about. And the recognition of difference seems to me entirely compatible with deep mutual respect, with commitment to dialogue, sometimes costly dialogue, and to coexistence.
I am aware that within the Muslim scholarly world there is discussion about the relationship between different parts of the Qur’an regarding the role and status of those faiths having been as preparatory to the revelation of Islam, debate as to how specific and articulate must be your confession of faith in order to win a good judgement  on the last day. There is, it seems, a recognition of pluralism of a kind within the Qur’anic text. The well known text which reminds us that God could have made all human beings alike had He so chosen, reminds us that the sheer fact of difference and otherness in the human world is entirely comprehended within the divine purpose, and there is also a recognition  that different  kinds of human beings learn different things at different rates in different places. There is also discussion in the Muslim scholarly world, as I understand it, going back many centuries about the relationship between natural reason and revelation, the degree to which revelation completes what natural reason can work out for itself and the degree to which revelation is something to which human reason can never attain. And I am aware of the passionate  intellectual  exchanges  in the Middle Ages on these matters between different schools of Islamic thought.
These debates remind us that when we look at the Islamic world we are not looking at an intellectual monolith any more than we are looking at a political monolith. But so long as Christians and Muslims both have commitments to do with the historic origins of their faiths and so long as they agree in seeing that their faith implies a universal offer of wisdom and salvation, there is inevitable tension, inevitable conversation, disagreement and negotiation to pursue between our parts of the family. That process drives us all to better self-understanding, to a self-questioning that takes us deeper; it doesn’t lead to compromise or indifferentism.
So, as regards that first sense of pluralism I believe that we all ought to be rather suspicious of the idea that our differences can somehow be elided into a bland and unspecific unity. We all grow by our encounter with the other. Supremely we grow by encounter with that divine Other who addresses, moves, judges, challenges and heals us. But we grow also in encounter with those human others who in their different ways bring to us something of God that opens doors in our own selves that we would not otherwise be aware of.
But now to my second sense of the word pluralism, the sense that is perhaps most often used these days in the discussion of the kind of society we live in. ‘Pluralism’ can be a description of a social or legal system that works with diverse communities of conviction but does not identify with any one of them. It is in that sense that many people use the adjective ‘pluralist’ to describe the situation in which we live in the United Kingdom and in Western Europe generally. We do not live in a society where one faith has obvious unambiguous social priority or privilege. Whatever may be said of the historic position of Christianity in this society, it could not be said without a good deal of qualification that this is a society where Christianity  was enforced or preferred by the law. While this is not to overlook the complex of questions about the vulnerability of many Muslims before the law in this country, I think it is true to say that we are pluralist in the basic sense that this is a social and legal system in which communities of difference exist side by side.
Historically and at the present time Christian and Muslim theorists cope with this in different ways. In Christian history there is a very long tradition of understanding Christian identity in terms of minority status and detachment. Early Christianity was a minority movement in the Roman Empire fiercely persecuted for several centuries. In the Middle Ages when it was no longer a minority movement in Europe it was still divided as between the great international corporation of clergy, where the Canon Law of the Church determined everything, and the realms in which the monarchies of the Middle Ages exercised their authority and their different legal systems. Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation spoke of the ‘two kingdoms’ under which human beings lived – the realm of the Gospel and the realm of the law, which was administered by the officers of the state and which had, in many very important senses, nothing to do with the realm of the Gospel. In other words Christians have inherited many centuries of social dualism; they have thought of themselves as a body not identical with the political and social structures of power that prevailed in their societies. Frequently they have deluded themselves about this, but this is nonetheless what they have said, and these are some of the historical reasons for which they have said it.
So the Christian Church has seen itself as something in lasting tension with almost any imaginable social order. But this is a greater challenge for Muslims. Islam began, not as a ‘religion’ in the sense (the sad modern sense) of an optional extra which certain people might choose to believe and act upon in their spare time, but as a comprehensive  system of understanding, action and administration, which was in itself a renewed and transformed society. It has never been easy for Muslims simply to accept the idea that there is something permanent about minority status or detachment from a social order, because the social order is the realm in which Islam appears to operate. But what exactly does this mean in practice? It is intriguing for a non-Muslim to see the kinds of discussion that go forward about this at the present time. I have here in mind some of the work of Muslim friends and colleagues who in different ways have recently produced some sharply focussed discussions about this matter, discussions of the historical background for thinking about Muslim loyalties in the non-Muslim state, and discussion of the parameters for current engagement. An essay by Imtiaz Ahmed Hussein on the historical background of minority status for Muslims, for example, gives a very interesting and full discussion of the so called Abyssinian  episode, which provides one form of orientation for resourcing a current discussion on this matter. But the question of the parameters for current engagement is clearly a discussion which will go on for quite a long time and which has engaged a good many very significant minds in the British Muslim community.
I pause briefly to say a word about this issue of loyalty because I believe it is a source of immense misunderstanding in our present situation. A majority of Muslims regard themselves as Muslim before they are British, we are told. I rather hope that a majority of Christians might see themselves as Christian before they are British, because the different ways in which we speak about loyalty seem to me to be very important to clarify in this connection. The loyalty which declares that ultimately our obedience, our responsibility, is due to God, seems to me to be a loyalty which any seriously religious person ought to put first. But that is precisely not like saying that I have a loyalty to that country or that system in preference to this country, or this system. It means that my loyalty to the society in which I find myself is one that is always interpreted, enriched, challenged by my primary loyalty to my Creator. I think we need to understand a great deal better what is at issue here. It has been noted that in the European Middle Ages, had you asked a peasant in Southern France how he would describe himself, he would almost certainly first have said, ‘I am a Christian’; he might next have said that he was a vassal of such and such a local lord; he might, if pressed, have admitted that this local lord had some rather remote relationship with somebody called the King of France, but I don’t think he would have said, ‘I am a Frenchman’. In other words the kind of comprehensive loyalty we associate with the nation-state is a very modern and local phenomenon. It is to do with a set of extremely important questions about our willingness to commit to and defend the stability and security of the place where we find ourselves. It is not, however, to do with transcendental identities.
Of course the principle of loyalty to the Umma is something so deep in Islam that it would be rather absurd to suggest that there were any loyalties which supervened over this; and I find in the excellent book by Tariq Ramadan on Western Islam some very interesting discussion of precisely this point. We are reminded of Muhammad’s remarks on just that loyalty to the Umma where Ramadan quotes a very teasing little statement which perhaps ought to be better known and more discussed in our situation in this country. There is a hadith which says that Muhammad exhorted Muslims to help brothers whether they are unjust or whether they are suffering injustice. One of the Companions, not unnaturally, asked ‘Why should we help brothers who are unjust?’ to which Muhammad replied ‘you help them to stop being unjust’. Now that focuses rather clearly the nature of responsibility and loyalty as understood within the Muslim community. It is fundamentally a moral and religious loyalty, the kind of loyalty which holds you accountable to God. It is not in the least comparable to that foolish version of patriotism which says ‘My country, right or wrong’. Loyalty to the Umma in that connection is very close to what a Christian would say about loyalty to the Church; it is a faithfulness to a common calling, therefore never uncritical, never collusive with the violence or injustice of another. It is about the help that can and must be offered to all to live in justice.
But this is a matter much clouded by the sheer complexity and variety of modern globalised society and global communication.Those interested may want to look at the third chapter of Tariq Ramadan’s book which discusses at length the complexities introduced by the sheer mobility of the modern citizen; the idea that there is in any simple sense a homeland or a set of homelands, for Muslims or anyone else, is something far harder to sustain in this present context. And this means as Ramadan says, that some of the traditional bipolar ways of speaking of dar al-Islam and dar al-harb don’t work very easily these days. And he, like some others, has developed two further concepts in the tradition as ways of thinking through the present situation – dar al-‘ahd, the house of treaty or negotiation, and dar al-dawa, the realm of invitation – and uses that as a useful and creative platform for thinking about the nature of engagement in a majority non-Islamic society. Others, I am sure, will have more to say about that, and I speak as an outsider and an amateur  here – but one gratefully aware of the sophistication and variety of discussion on this subject at this time. All of this is about my second sense of pluralism and the different resources from tradition which Christians and Muslims can bring to bear on the situation of a secular society with communities of diverse conviction. I shall come back a little later to some further remarks about that, but I want first to add some words about the third sense of pluralism, that sense where I believe Christians and Muslims may perhaps most easily come together in understanding one another and working with one another.
In twentieth century political thought, ‘pluralism’ is sometimes used to describe a political culture of non-centralised action, a political culture which looks to plural centres of activity rather than imagining that the state has to license and delegate everything from the top. The ‘pluralist’ society is one in which the initiatives and capacities of civil society are fully and richly developed. In this sense ‘pluralism’ here in its political context, designates an anti-hierarchical, anti-centralist view of social order which challenges an uncritical or oppressive view of the sovereignty of the nation state as the be-all and end-all in political  tructure.This approach has many roots in specifically Christian reflection from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It looks back also to some theological discussion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the wake of the Reformation in Europe – the further reformation of political and social understanding which arose at that point.
Pluralism in this sense has to do with the insistence that legitimacy in social activity, legitimacy for social cohesion and association is not conferred by an all-powerful state on subordinate bodies. It is rather the other way round: the state derives its legitimacy from the success and imagination  with  which  it manages  the relationship between a huge variety of civil society associations, faith communities and other intermediate human communities. One of the great and damaging fictions of European modernity is the notion that there is nothing between the individual and the state, that the sovereignty of the state is an all-important comprehensive legitimate power controlling the possibilities for the individual – rather than taking seriously the fact that the primary forms of human association are neither private nor stateist but communal, corporate, and very often religious. Now if the legitimacy of a society is bound up with the ways in which it facilitates the work, the liberty and the creativity of independent bodies, religious and other, as they relate peacefully and cooperatively with each other, I believe that this kind of pluralism is something which a Christian and a Muslim alike might welcome, might find suggestive and creative. It is in this third area that perhaps some of the most promising areas of cooperation, mutual understanding and transformative action open up.
So there are three senses of ‘pluralism’, – a religious pluralism which I don’t think either the Christian or the Muslim can easily accept in the terms in which it is stated; social pluralism where we bring to bear very different traditions of understanding and self-understanding; and a third definition which has to do with the very structuring of society where both Christian and Muslim can find resonances and scope for collaboration.
To move on: it is as I have already indicated in the area of my second sense of pluralism, that some of the most acute and complex questions arise. Is the pragmatic goal for a Muslim always going to be a universal political order of Muslim character? That may be the hope and prayer, but is it actually what Muslims ought to be working for today and tomorrow? And even if it is a long-term goal, what are the means towards it? Does the very fact of living in a non-Muslim jurisdiction undermine Muslim integrity? Once again, I refer to the high quality of work done in recent years on precisely this subject questioning whether that notion of a compromised integrity when Muslims are living in a non-Muslim jurisdiction is in fact either coherent in itself or indeed faithful to the best in the history of Islamic thought.
Tim Winter has written that Islam is not committed to violent reaction against the global consensus.What I take him to mean is that the problems and tensions that arise between the law of Islam and the law of the state, are not to be resolved by some simple, violent and apocalyptic means; they are material for understanding and negotiation.
And they are there as a contribution to the transforming, the bettering and deepening of the global consensus.They are not in themselves a licence for universal flight or ‘exile’, – and I know that this is a rather significant term in this context for the Muslim student. And Tim Winter refers in his discussion of this subject to the work of Barbara Metcalf on Deoband in British India. Metcalf notes that many from the Deobandi tradition in India held very strongly to the view advanced by some jurists, that a state is in some way a part of the dar al-islam, if even one provision of the law is honoured. That’s a controversial position; but it reminds us again of some of the resources in history which helpfully complicate an area that is lethally simplified by those who think of Islam as monolithic, morally, politically, and theologically and who therefore regard it as violent and threatening. Tim Winter notes the significance in this context of patience.
‘Religious patience never runs out,’ he writes; in other words the Muslim in the non-Muslim jurisdiction does not have to be someone whose primary characteristic is revolt or restlessness, though his or her position may be and perhaps should be, characteristically  one of intelligent and hopeful questioning towards the social consensus around.
And this is perhaps an area where Christians and Muslims ought to have more to say to each other. Christians are, as I have hinted, perhaps in some ways better placed, because  of the tradition that they inherit to speak about the experience of thinking of your whole life of faith as exile.We are used to certain privileging of the holy minority, used to being awkward, used to that self-image of a group at odds with any imaginable social order. We are used to the idea that short of the Last Judgment there is simply not going to be a social order on earth which perfectly embodies the Law of God. This is very deeply built into Christian self-understanding, and it is given classical expression by the great St Augustine in his work on The City of God in the fifth Christian  century. That being said, a Muslim has an important  challenge to put in response to the Christian. I say that not simply in the abstract, but mindful of this very question being asked of me in Islamabad nearly eighteen months ago when I, greatly daring, gave a lecture to the Islamic University on ‘What is Christianity?’ One of the most searching questions I was asked was ‘why is it that Christianity does not seem to be or to have a real law?, isn’t it all about individual salvation?’ I responded very naturally by saying that Christianity wasn’t quite like that; but the point is that the nature of the challenge is significant for Christians. There is a temptation for Christians to individualism and privatisation of faith if we are used to being an awkward minority, sceptical about any claims to have the law of God embodied within history, we have to deal with the temptation to resignation – simply giving over the public sphere to violence. There have been times when precisely that has been what Christians have done, the most appalling of them being the corporate resignation of a great deal of German Christianity in the 1930s to Nazism, – a resignation sadly with some real theological roots in a particular Christian tradition, sad to say.
The Muslim may put that challenge to the Christian; and I hope that the Christian may equally challenge the Muslim, from the history of Christian experience, to see that there is what a Christian may call a measure of
‘eschatological reserve’ in how we approach society. That is a wonderful bit of Christian theological jargon, for which I make due apology: it means that with any apparent embodiment of the law or the justice of God you have to have something in reserve which allows you to say ‘but that’s not it yet, not this side of the Last Judgment’. God brings in the Kingdom, not human beings; and that reserve keeps us humble and critical about our successes. And that perhaps, is a positive strand in the Christian tradition of thinking about society. Given that there have been and sadly still are some in the Muslim community (as there are in other religious communities, including my own) who seem to believe that ends justify means, then Christians may also say ‘Beware of the assumption that the bringing in of the order of perfect justice within history justifies atrocity or inhumanity.’ All religions need to hear and to learn that.
That’s the kind of exchange in this area, this second area of understanding pluralism where I think we have a lot to say to each other and where we have to learn to listen very carefully, patiently and generously. So although I have identified the third kind of pluralism  as the area where there is most obvious opportunity for convergence, what I have just said suggests that there may be some rather unexpected convergences or exchanges to be developed in relation to pluralism mark two – if we have the ‘religious patience’ that Tim Winter writes about to carry it through.
Two remarks in conclusion.The first is a very simple one about pluralism mark three. Christians and Muslims working together to challenge uncritical models of state sovereignty, and top-down models of social management – this seems to me to be something which we can do, which we are doing and which we ought to be doing more of. I was very delighted to read the essay by Neil Jameson on Christian/Muslim cooperation in the field of Community Organising as that is one very simple, practical, local area where much can be done. It is a way of challenging not only what I call ‘stateism’, but also challenging that persistent  and at the moment rather over-anxious, social concern with preserving a kind of ‘neutrality’ in the public sphere.
We are, I think quite rightly, working together as religious communities to resist the idea that the default setting for every mature human society has got to be non-religious, not simply in the sense of not committed to one religion, but scrupulously keeping out of view any sign of religious commitment or any explicit reference to the religious roots of moral and social vision. That kind of secularism is, I believe, very bad for us corporately and it is a battle which is, at the moment, much in the public eye.When we argue for the visibility of faith in the public sphere we don’t do so in order to impose a theocracy, a religiously sanctioned system imposed upon everybody; we do it because we believe that the real health of a society comes from bringing to light the deepest moral motivations of human beings – and that if people are encouraged to leave the roots of their vision out of sight, the results are not healthy and not as fruitful as they might be.
Tariq Ramadan again says in his book ‘our philosophies  of life must continue to inspire our civil commitment’; and that seems to me a very simple and very effective way of putting what I am talking about – the inspiration  of civil commitment, our commitment, our loyalty, not to some abstraction but to the civil task of building harmony, understanding and justice in one local community after another, by the work in partnership of religious bodies, statutory bodies, secular voluntary bodies, working out what they can do together and how they should do it. Or to put it slightly differently, we are talking about a call to religiously responsible citizenship – and I would underline equally every word in that phrase: a citizenship that is conscious participation in the place where we are, and the ways in which it runs, that is responsible, that deals with the law as it is and society as it is, but is religiously motivated and religiously answerable, conscious that it is accountable to God, not just to the success of its projects or the passing acceptability of its practice to whatever administration  happens to be in power. This is civil commitment as religiously responsible citizenship.
My last observation is a rather broader one and it is something which arises out of much of the discussion that I’ve tried to open up so far. What I have been talking about is really how Christians and Muslims together can witness to their belief in God’s act in history – that is how Christians and Muslims together can affirm that history is a serious matter, touched by the action of God. God took human history seriously, and so should we. Because God took human history seriously, the need for trust and risk, tradition, interpretation and self-questioning are all bound up together. It did not please God to make all people of one race; it did not please God, said one of our Christian fathers, to save his people by knock- down argument. It pleased God to work by words and acts and events which need to be received, interpreted, thought through; it pleased God to touch this historical world by setting up chains of historical relationship. That is a conviction which holds the children  of Abraham very firmly together. And it is a conviction which ought to set us in opposition to three different kinds of distortion  which sadly are popular  and much talked about these days. It sets us first against the rationalism of a secular world, which in effect believes that history doesn’t matter because there is a set of timeless rational principles ingrained in every sensible human being which ought to be obvious to everyone without the intervention of revelation, tradition or social setting. That eighteenth century notion has been in practice much questioned, indeed I would say battered by the realities of the last couple of centuries, but is still very powerful as a default setting in the minds of many people (especially people who write in newspapers).
Some things are assumed to be just obvious; and anyone who says they are not obvious is clearly a premodern eccentric whose views do not deserve a hearing in the public sphere.We can agree in being constructively sceptical about that kind of timeless rationalism, that particular way of stepping out of history. But there is, secondly, a way of stepping out of history which is very familiar to Muslims as well, a particular kind of Muslim primitivism which suggests that God has abandoned those He called from somewhere around the tenth century of the Christian era to fairly recently. Now that clearly poses a theological problem which Tim Winter in his essay spells out with great eloquence. Are we to suppose a God who forgets to be involved with his people’s evolution in history, with the culture, the intellect, the art, the reflection of the actual history of real Muslim communities? That would be to say something very strange about the God revealed in the Qur’an. And something rather like that, of course afflicts Christians as well in the form of Christian fundamentalism, the third distortion to be revisited as is.
Once again the notion is that God has spoken in a way so definitive that all the possible difficulty and ambiguity of history is sidelined, the Bible is totally clear, it drops from heaven a completed work with answers to every question.The fact that the Bible is a book, it is there to be read no less than the Qur’an, is rather obscured in this setting, the fact that the Bible is a book which has been read over and over again by Christians reflecting and arguing within the context of their intellectual and material culture.That’s rather obscured by fundamentalism; and the question which many Christians would want to put to the fundamentalist is exactly the question that Tim Winter suggests putting to his fellow Muslims.To quote the psalm ‘Hath God forgotten to be gracious?’ Is the commitment of God to history so slight that having laid holy scripture on the table, so to speak, God then withdraws in sublime confidence that everything is now clear? This doesn’t seem to me to be how scripture itself or Christian and Jewish scripture describes the ways of God’s working with us. So we have good reason to be affirmative about history, to be curious, engaged, welcoming about and interested in change, not for its own sake but as a way of being taken by God deeper into an ongoing stream of historical tradition and reflection. But I would say that the polarity is not between, to use the unhelpful words that are popular with some, ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ Islam, between Muslim ‘fundamentalists’ and Muslim ‘moderates’. It’s rather between those who understand that history is part of a Muslim identity and those who don’t. Just as within Christianity, the gulf is not simply between liberals and conservatives, it’s between those who in varying ways, respond to and work with the grain of a long historical tradition (whether they come out with conservative or not conservative conclusions) and those who simply don’t see that there is a question about this dimension of learning over periods of time. The God we worship and honour is, I would argue, a God who is committed to actual social human beings, who are called to live out their obedience through revealed law, in a history of change, decision and discernment.
That, I believe is something we hold in common; and responding to it creatively seems to me to be the challenge and the opportunity of living in, (in all these various senses,) a pluralist environment.