Equality and religious tolerance in Islam

12 02 2009

Since the dawn of Islam in Arabia, the history of Islam has posed strong emphasis on ethno-cultural equality and freedom of religion. These practices are taught in the Holy Quran, can be found in the practices and preaching of Prophet Mohammad, are enforced by Muslim dynasties and are written in Islamic ordinance in various forms. These principals align with the Article 1, 2 and 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right as declared by the UN’s General Assembly.

Article 18 of UDHR discusses each individual’s right to practice religion according to his or her freewill. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

 Holy Quran declares: “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct.Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware!” (49:13).  Notice that this ayah is addressed not to believers or Muslims but to mankind. To be honorable in the eyes of God one doesn’t have to be Muslim or Jew or Christian or Hindu or Jain– just pious. This notion was emphasized by Prophet Mohammad when he declared an end to any superiority between Arabi and Ajmi and whites and blacks based on their ethnic or racial backgrounds. Therefore, according to Islamic ethics, all men and women are created equal and must not be discriminated.

 The Constitution of Medina, “was a formal system” that endorsed the “principles of equality and pluralism” that protected the rights of Jews and Christians (Ahl Al-Kitab). This tradition of equality was carried on when equal opportunities were given to all alike by the Ottoman, Fatimid and Mughal rulers. In the 10th century Muslim city of Cordoba in Spain, ethnicity and race did not matter in the society. As book one, Exploring and Discovering, of primary six Ta’lim curriculum quotes: “In Cordoba, there are not Jews, Muslims, or Christians, there are probably not even Spaniards. In Cordoba, there are just Cordobeses.” (p. 20) During the Suleyman’s reign on Ottoman Empire, young non-Muslim boys were given special trainings to serve the state. Similarly, the Fatimid dynasty was known for its ethnic and religious tolerance. The Fatimid caliphs not only offered religious freedom to their people but also offered equal opportunities in the high offices of government. Mughal ruler Akbar, the Great, also enforced law in his country to give freedom of worship without interference from government officials. He invited scholars from different religions to his court to have open discussions about variant religious believes. (Exploring and Discovering)


Islam’s tolerance to religious and ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism is not limited to the Holy Book, the life of Holy Prophet or the Muslim dynasties of the past. This tradition can still be seen today in the work of Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The mandate of AKDN is to “realise the social conscience of Islam” and to attain its goals “beyond the boundaries of creed, color, race and nationality”.  (AKDN: An Ethical Framework). AKDN has many non-Muslim skillful individuals employed based on merit (Steigerwald).


In the words of Article 1 and 2 of UDHR, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”







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