Concerning toleration

COMMENT: Letters concerning toleration — III —Ahmad Ali Khalid

An intolerant society is often an impoverished society, not an affluent one. The path to this dangerous vice is often made alluring through harsh and unforgiving socio-economic conditions

On the concept of citizenship as a basis of tolerance that cuts across sectarian and religious divisions, it should be said that our nation’s founder, Mr Jinnah, made it patently clear that, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Citizenship must trump the exclusivist interpretations of religious membership. All citizens have equal rights and responsibilities, regardless of creed, and as such their convictions should not be made a basis for disadvantageous treatment.
However, we must be under no illusions, the problem of intolerance has run deep and has seeped into the popular consciousness exhibited by populist political and religious discourse. There are issues deeper than simply a humane reading of religious texts. There are more difficult and complex issues involved, such as religious authority and tradition. The problem is that there is no calibrated theory of Islamic law, ethics, philosophy or even textual interpretation (tafsir) that we can count as ‘progressive’. The challenges then are more complicated than we first thought; it is simply not the case of a particular interpretation but the underlying juristic, interpretational and ethical frameworks that provide the moral and psychological foundations of the obscurant religious discourse in Pakistan. This requires a more rigorous engagement and must emanate from new conceptions of education and jurisprudence. It is the paradigms from which the clerics, demagogues and puritans work that go unquestioned, the narrow and restrictive parameters they impose on interpretation that seem insulated from criticism.
That being said, there have always been many philosophical and intellectual traditions in Islam that emphasise the scope of reason, but perhaps the only option left for us today is to construct a theory of natural law within Islam that recognises reason, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and that moral values can be determined by all human beings regardless of conviction by the aid of our common reason.
Then there are other matters such as general law and order, education and other such issues that the state must solve in relation to its citizens. An intolerant society is often an impoverished society, not an affluent one. The path to this dangerous vice is often made alluring through harsh and unforgiving socio-economic conditions. Education and, more crucially, the values and moral priorities we pass on to the youth are critical, especially in a country like Pakistan where there is a huge youth bulge. A society must be equipped with the necessary intellectual tools and penchant for critical analysis to deal with demagogues and other opponents of democratic discourse, since the nature of such discourse does not rest upon an authoritarian leader but the success of autonomous and critical individuals willing to question. Such individuals will not come from a society where politicians have fake degrees, corruption is rampant, virtue is seen as weakness and basic welfare is not established.
Focusing on our nation’s history, it was the vision of Mr Jinnah to have a state built on the pillars of liberty and tolerance. For liberty cannot be born from the barren desert of intolerance but only from the fertile soil of tolerance. Notions of democracy and republicanism that make up this country’s political orientation are predicated on the notion of tolerance and the ability to withstand a multiplicity of viewpoints. It encourages maturity to debate and discuss rationally without the threat of violence or intimidation.
In Pakistan’s case, Mr Jinnah’s famous August 11th speech in 1947 lays down the foundations of tolerance, equality and freedom of conscience, which he saw as one of the pillars of his new republic. Why on earth this perspicuous text is not included in the constitution is a mystery. Also Iqbal’s keen advocacy of ijtihad, reconstruction and re-instating dynamism in fiqh to reflect the pluralistic and tolerant spirit of Islam is visible throughout his work in Reconstruction when he writes, “The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to reinterpret the foundational legal principles in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life is, in my opinion, perfectly justified. The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”
Elsewhere, the former Chief Justice and late Dr Sheikh Abdur Rahman has dealt quite admirably with the case of religious freedom in his work Punishment Of Apostasy in Islam, where he engages with the traditional fiqhi stance towards freedom of conscience and tolerance whilst advocating new paradigms and rulings reflecting the clear and unambiguous Quranic texts that clearly lay down the foundations for freedom of conscience and tolerance. Other Pakistani scholars such as Ghamidi, Muhammad Khalid Masud and the late Professor Rahman too have advocated similar lines of argument for change.
Finally, after supporting tolerance, we must remain critical of this concept and prevent some confusion that may have arisen. Toleration is not the final ideal, but the first step; the higher aim should be to have a deep appreciation of pluralism and respect. Toleration can guarantee a peaceful co-existence but it cannot guarantee a constructive, proactive and creative co-existence. That requires something much deeper and more profound than tolerance — pluralism and respect. For instance, an individual can be tolerant but also can be dogmatic in thinking that he or she has the only single exclusive response to the problems of society. Tolerance cannot guarantee synthesis, reconciliation and consensus, items that are crucial for fostering an intelligent and productive society.
The free exchange of ideas cannot simply happen through mere toleration.


The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. He can be reached at


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