Sujjawal Ahmad (@sujjawalahmad): Pluralism – A Positive Response to Diversity

THE necessity for peaceful coexistence has never been so pressing in our history as it is today. Rivets Learning’s recent book, “Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity, and Diaspora,” examines the connection between local narratives and external rhetoric of diversity and inclusion in Pakistan; and calls for a need to think out of the box and short-term solutions to seek a deep-rooted approach for a more democratic, inclusive, and tolerant society.

Social scientists often posit human culture as the most complex but natural phenomenon on earth, as it embodies a broad range of entities from simple collective behaviors and values to religious beliefs and social constructions. Religion can be considered a quintessential product of culture, at least in terms of literacy, artistic, and philosophical aspects; however, the most powerful engines of human diversity are social constructions of culture which simply refer to the constructions of our minds and what we imagine and share “for” and “with” others.

Over the last half-century, advances in global trade and communication have resulted in increasingly frequent cultural interactions between different peoples, nations, and regions, leading the world to a more indivisible whole. The purely secular approach to tolerance, thus, carries — for the sake of an abstract social construct — a risk of falling into a corrosive relativism of the ‘anything goes’ variety.

The Muslim tradition, in principle as well as in practice, provides important answers about human diversity and spiritual response to it.

The Quranic perspective on the spiritual unity of the diverse humankind is evident in 4:1 which states, “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and it created its mate and from them, twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.”

This is the unique aspect in which the Quran grounds its worldview about the diversity and plurality of mankind in divine Oneness. Importantly, from the Quranic perspective, the dignity of a human person necessitates that one’s fellow people respect one’s freedom of choice, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. As a result, freedom becomes the cause of additional choices that the individual can make, as well as the inevitable pluralism of choices that follows. Due to the Noble Quran’s unequivocal affirmation (17:70), that dignity is a prerogative of all individuals, respect for freedom of choice, and pluralism becomes an extension of respect for human dignity.

If we look back to our past, we can find great examples — endowed with this worldview — with effective solutions to address today’s issues of social exclusion as well as how we can contribute to the construction of bridges between faiths, nations, and individuals who hold a difference of beliefs and cultural norms. The earliest Islamic state of Medina, as well as succeeding Islamic states like Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid, exhibited this capacity of pluralism – embracing diversity and peaceful cohabitation with the others’ cultural and religious expressions. The spread of Islam provided a meeting place for different societies in various parts of the world, opening up new doors to opportunities for knowledge and creativity exchange. Individuals from many ethnic and religious backgrounds came together in those states because of the power of inclusion and openness. Different ideas were not only welcomed but also examined and synthesized leading way to the cultivation of philosophical and scientific ideas.

The notion of Pluralism has existed ever since the dawn of the human race and it implies acknowledging unique aspects that connect us to the rest of humankind and seeing encounters with the “other” as opportunities for learning, connection, and building bridges between communities, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, religions, etc. Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire in the fifth century BCE, was the first man of authority to recognize and foster religious pluralism, by stretching forth a vast imperial domain from inclusive of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, and Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, and possibly Europe.

Today, we are in the midst of a historic period in which the world’s societies are grappling with issues of injustices, inequality, and exclusion and the resulting precarity of fragmentation and polarisation.

There is also a dire need to establish institutions that bring policymakers, educators, and community builders together on one platform to elevate and implement the transformative power of pluralism. One noteworthy example in this regard is the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, Canada which was established by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, one of the staunch contemporary advocates of pluralism. Prince Karim is the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network.

The Global Centre for Pluralism’s headquarters in Ottawa is a heritage building that formerly housed the Public Archives of Canada (1905-1967), followed by the War Museum (1967-2005). Image source: AKDN

For the Aga Khan, the instability that we see worldwide is the consequence of the rejection of pluralism. Strengthening pluralism in all corners of the globe, he has said, ”is critical to the development of peace and humankind in the 21st century.” He defines pluralism as “a set of values and actions, founded on respect for diversity, which supports and sustains inclusive societies.”

Pluralist societies, according to the Aga Khan, are not “accidents of history,” but the result of enlightened education and continued investment by governments and civil society. To promote the concept of pluralism in our society, the government, as well as civil society, must join hands to begin work at the grassroots level, by emphasizing the value of pluralism, tolerance, and appreciation of diversity in our schools; and this necessitates educational policy and curricular changes.

The transformative impact of the pluralism that it can bring to our world is possible only when we pledge to become more egalitarian, peaceful, and inclusive by valuing diversity and addressing structural injustices. Every citizen will experience a feeling of belonging when each person’s dignity is respected. It is our responsibility to act and make this world a better place for “all”.

Source: Sujjawal Ahmad on LinkedIn

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is an invited blog author from Pakistan. He finds it extremely exciting to develop a deep love of cultures around the world. The stories that are about humanity, and emotion, that compel us as individuals, and connect our hearts and minds are the kinds of stories Sujjawal has always gravitated to, and the kinds he tells. He can be reached at:

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