Book review: Facets of religious tolerance ignored by identity-led discord


The book talks about a time when the task of tending the lamps of the Al-Aqsa mosque in the old city of Jerusalem was given to Jews, a story that sounds so improbable today that it seems more fiction than fact | Photo: iStock
Tolerance is a hard sell in the times we live. Up against the brute force of muscular nationalism and the politics of religious polarisation, it is increasingly being pushed out as a relic from a fading liberal age. At its best, to be tolerant, in a contemporary reading of the word, is an adjustment one makes to let peace in through the skylight. At its worst, it is an indefensible position at a time when the enemy is marching in through the border. 


What does tolerance stand for and where should the picket fences go up in the religious and cultural battleground of present-day politics? Unfortunately, very little is known for a conclusive answer. There is no clarity on what tolerance has meant in the past, about its role in fostering or quelling dissent and how different civilisations have unpacked it within their religious contexts.


Tragically, therefore, policies around race and religion all around the globe are being built on biases and assumptions and against political exigency. Public policy that will define the future course for nations, and humankind, is not just being fashioned out of ignorance but in a fog of misinformation. 


This book is a starting point for an evidence-based discussion on the subject, for as the author Arvind Sharma says, “…it stands to reason that religious tolerance could be placed on a firmer basis if grounds for it could


be found within the various religious traditions themselves.”


Sharma is the Birks professor of comparative religion at the School of Religious Studies at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) and trains an academic lens on the subject. Religious tolerance, he says, needs to be filtered through a three-layered sieve: Whether religions were exclusionary (there is just one God and one way to worship him), or inclusionary (there is one God and many ways to reach him but one path is better than the rest) or pluralistic (all gods and religions are the same). Extreme exclusionary behaviour is a sign of intolerance while the other two reveal varying degrees of tolerance. Surprisingly, all three aspects are present in all religions, the most tolerant exhibit signs of extreme intolerance and vice versa.

Religious tolerance: A history | Author: Arvind Sharma | Publisher: HarperCollins | Pages: 569 | Price: Rs 899
Consider Islam, the religion under the scanner of every state for being intolerant of other faiths. “There is, however, considerable evidence to the contrary to be found in the history and literature of Islam, which attests to tolerance both within Islam and in Islam’s interaction with other religions,” Sharma writes and then quotes Prophet Muhammed as saying the ‘difference of opinion in my community is (a manifestation of divine) mercy’.


The book talks about a time when the task of tending the lamps of the Al-Aqsa mosque in the old city of Jerusalem was given to Jews, a story that sounds so improbable today that it seems more fiction than fact. In India, there are many examples of Islamic rulers being pluralistic in their approach to other religions, although much of the narrative today is about their cruelty and oppression.


In the 15th century lived Zayn-al-Abideen. He ruled over Kashmir and neighbouring regions from 1420 to 1470. He is believed to have revived the tradition of Hindu historiography — the second part of Rajtarangini by Kalhana (a poet who wrote in 12th century) was set to music and popularised under his rule. He also recalled all Hindus (mostly Brahmins) who had been expelled by previous regimes and is believed to have signed a contract with them that they would not act in contravention of what was in their books. Akbar’s is a well-known story but one of the many that the book digs into to understand the nature of tolerance that he sought to establish through his Din-i-ilahi.


In tracing the history of tolerance in Hinduism, from the Vedic period to its present day, Sharma brings out the multi-faceted understanding of the term that the ancient texts provide. One of the strongest descriptors of the pluralistic nature of the religion is found in one of the Rig Vedic hymns, “The truth is one, the sages call it variously.”


However, Sharma dispels a popular notion about Hinduism: that its pluralistic nature derives from its polytheism. That is based on a false presumption, because the many gods in Hinduism have come to represent the various forms of the one and same God. He writes, “Thus a plurality of gods does not denote polytheism in Hinduism but rather the plurality of the forms in which the same one God might appear.


A new word such as polyformism may have to be coined, or an older word, polymorphism, may have to be invoked, to be set beside polytheism to provide the corrective.”


The book peels off the complex nature of religious tolerance, layer by layer, burrowing its way into areas that often get overlooked when examined through a political or identity-led discourse. For instance, the ability of people in parts of Southeast Asia and even India to follow multiple religions is not understood when placed within a narrative that sees religions to be mutually incompatible and exclusive. And yet there are many examples in China, Japan and even in parts of India and Pakistan where rituals and practices from one religion are a part of another. But these examples are all swept off the table when held against a single standard measure of religious identity.


Tolerance, the book tells us, is a part of every religion; but so is intolerance. If countries have to work towards a more humane world, the political leadership would have to look beyond the hate-inducing aspects and turn to the pluralistic and merciful avatars, because as Sharma writes, in every period and under every ruler, “the state of intolerance is determined by the State”.

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