The Spanish term Convivencia, meaning “living together,” refers to the peaceful coexistence practiced in Andalucía (Muslim Spain) during the Golden Period of Islam (8th-13th century) where adherents of three Abrahamic religions coexisted and prospered; and “by extension the cultural interaction and exchange fostered by such proximity”. Similar examples were set by some enlightened Christian rulers in Europe (Sicily and parts of Balkans) – though at a smaller scale. Thus, Convivencia can serve as an ideal for multi-cultural and pluralistic societies as that of Pakistan. This cultural pluralism in Andalucía was shaped by a knowledge ethos built by renowned philosophers, and practiced under the enlightened rulers who patronized them. Highlighting contemporary relevance of the idea, Chris Wood writes:
The Spanish word [Convivencia] conjures the possibilities for living well when ideas are shared and when there is tolerance. It is used to describe the cultural flowering that occurred in medieval Spain, when the ruling Muslim Caliphates promoted tolerance, and when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived well alongside one another.
The post-9/11 wave of irrational hostility and hatred towards Muslims, manifested in the form of Islamophobia, has bedeviled peaceful coexistence in many countries. Instances of associating COVID-19 pandemic to regions and religions is yet another sinister indicator of this hate-mania, which warrants deeper reflection and remedial measures.
One such effort in this regard is the latest book of Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed titled The Flying Man, designed to promote pristine understanding of Islam and Muslim society, and identify pathways for harmonious co-existence with other religions, drawing inspiration from the philosophic traditions that flourished during the Golden Age of Islam (786-1258 CE). It is in fact the continuation of his journey that started with Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society (Routledge, 1988), touching important milestones on the way such as Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (Routledge, 1992) and Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018). The book discusses the contribution of the leading philosophers of a remarkable period of history and highlights Islam’s capacity for scholarship with a view to promoting a better understanding of, and between, the great faiths — as their commonalities outweigh their differences.
Convivencia was essentially an outcome of the passion and pursuit of knowledge promoted by the great philosophers who helped Europe transition from Medieval Period to Renaissance and their love for Greek philosophy became the common denominator. The Muslim philosophers translated the works of Greek philosophers — especially Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — into Arabic, interpreted them and even integrated their ideas into Islamic theology. These efforts were led by Al-Farabi (870-950 CE), known as the “Second Teacher” after Aristotle for his passion to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy and Sufism. Avicenna also known as Ibn Sina (980-1037) who was influenced by Plato and experimented on duality of soul (mind) and body. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) is known for reconciling Islam with Greek philosophy, and Sufism with mainstream orthodox Islamic thought. He was followed by Averroes (Ibn-Rushd) 1126-1198 CE, remembered as “the maker of modern philosophy and father of rationalism”. He harmonized faith and philosophy — especially Aristotelian philosophy and Islam. Ibn-Arabi (1165-1240 CE) was known as Al-Shaik al-Akbar or “The Greatest Sheikh” who emphasized the essential universalism of Islam, inspired by the Qur’an. The work of these philosophers and other Muslim scholars influenced their Abrahamic counterparts like Rabbi Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas, celebrated thinkers in their respective faiths, who helped strengthen Convivencia through commonality of views and values. While Rabbi Maimonides encouraged his students to read Al-Farabi, his views on resurrection of the body after death were remarkably close to that of Al-Ghazali. St. Thomas Aquinas respected Averroes and referred to him as “the Commentator” in his writings, during a time of intense hostility towards Muslims. No wonder, this Golden Period of Islam in Andalucía is also regarded as the Golden Age of Jews.
The need for interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence has never been greater as compared to the modern times, plagued with intolerance and religiously motivated hostility. There can be many approaches to achieve this objective. Its imperatives can be deduced from the prevailing cultural environment. For example, in the context of Europe, Dr. Ahmed proposes pluralistic co-existence based on the best of European humanism, drawn from the teachings of great European thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Goethe, etc., that could build bridges between Europe and the World of Islam. It can be nurtured with ilm – ethos – based on knowledge and scholarship.
The idea has strong relevance to Pakistan which is home to some vibrant religious and cultural communities. In this regard, an academic exercise was organized in the form of webinars on “Nurturing Peaceful, Respectful and Inclusive Societies in Pakistan” from March 17-19, 2021 under the auspices of the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (OSAPG) and Department of Seerat at the Higher Education Commission. In the broader context, the activity was associated with “the implementation of the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes and the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.” It also aimed “to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG16 on building peaceful, inclusive and just societies.” The participants included university students, government officials, policymakers, religious leaders, as well as civil society, minorities and youth representatives. This dialogue put forth some feasible suggestions for better integration and cordial relations among communities. As a deliverable, a training manual will be prepared for schools, universities and civil society for global use.
In the context of Pakistan, which has millennium-old traditions of cultural diversity and coexistence, and pluralistic nature of its society, it was proposed to draw inspiration from the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), especially his empathy and compassion for the non-Muslims, including Jews and Christians, who resided in the state of Medina. Thus, the coexistence model of the State of Medina could serve as an ideal to be recreated and followed for building a peaceful and just society in Pakistan. Moreover, the humanistic teachings of the Sufi saints, who are respected and revered by the non-Muslims as well, should be used to promote peaceful coexistence. Likewise, Qur’anic injunction on politeness of speech: “And speak gently to the People.” (Al-Qur’ān 2:83), which enjoins the Muslims to speak softly and courteously, can be used to check hate speech.
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