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Tolerance in the teaching of the Great Prophet(s) and in liberalism: a contrastive analysis (Part 2)

Nov 18, 2011, 9:47 AM

This paper addresses the issue of tolerance in Islam and the teachings of the holy Prophet(s) in this regard. After examining the semantics of tasamuh and tasahul (tolerance), the view of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet (s) will be discussed. Tolerance is herein divided into positive and negative types, with positive tolerance referring to cases that Islam views favorably and negative tolerance referring to the exact opposite. In précis, Islam neither absolutely validates tolerance nor does it absolutely reject it. finally the fundamental differences between the views of Islam and liberalism regarding tolerance will be contrastively analyzed.

One of the issue of which Western thinkers have devoted meticulous attention is that of tolerance. The prevailing tendency among them is the liberalist view, which advocates tolerance in the extreme. The issue of tolerance has also been deal with in Islam and in the teachings of the Prophet (s). In this respect, Islam and liberalism have markedly different opinions in both concept and fundamentals.

Considering the popularity of this discourse among Muslim intellectuals and the differences of opinion thereof, a thorough analytic treatment of the issue is inevitable. In additions to referring to the traditions and Narrations of the Prophet (s), for the purpose of comprehensiveness, we will cite Quranic verses as well as other Narrations.

The historical antecedents of the Western idea of tolerance date back to the 16th and 17th century AD-there being no indications of this thought before that. The Christians of the Middle Ages brooked no adversaries, and Augustine, for example, supported corporeal punishment of dissenters and heretics. This trend continued throughout most of the Middle Ages. The best evidence of the absence of tolerance is the phenomena of the Inquisition during this period. Even Luther and Calvin did not believe in tolerance and lenience in the modern sense. 

In the 17th century, after enduring through the Thirty Year’s War and the bitter religious hostilities that came to on effect, people became aware that religious altercation was disadvantageous for all parties involved. This resulted in a tendency towards toleration. It is said that John Locke in his Letters Concerning Tolerance first propounded the concept of tolerance. Not long after, in the 17th century, the concept religious toleration came into being. Eventually, in the 19th century, the policy of religious toleration prevailed in most European countries resulting in widespread indifference and apathy towards religion.


Tasahul, derived from the root sahl, means ‘lenience,’ ‘acting in a gentle manner,’ ‘going easy on one another,’ and ‘unconcern.’ Tasamuh comes from the root samh, denoting ‘moderateness,’ ‘forbearance,’ ‘leniency,’ and ‘magnanimity ‘(see: Mu’in, 1981, vol. 1, p.1078; Firuzabadi, vol. 3, p. 583; and Dehkoda, 1964:668). These two words are generally used synonymously. However, bearing in mind the philological roots, there is a subtle difference between tasamuh and tasahul: tasamuh is not merely moderateness and easygoingness but encompasses moderateness along with forgiveness and magnanimity. In English, tolerance (for Latin tolerat-) is used as the equivalent of the words tasamuh and tasahul. It is defined as the willingness to accept or tolerate. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1998-99:1258) cites three meanings for tolerance:

1.         The willingness to accept or tolerate somebody/something, especially opinions or behaviour that you may not agree with, or people who are no like you.

2.         The ability to suffer something, especially pain, difficult condition, etc. without being harmed.

3.         The amount by which the measurement of a value can vary without causing problems.

This word is related with the infinitive ‘tollo’ meaning to carry, bear, or allow. It seems that a person who tolerates something bears a load. Therefore, some believe that the closest Arabic/Persian equivalent to tolerance is hilm, which means to bear unpleasant things though one has power to change the situation.

Terminologically, tasamuh and tasahul mean intentional and conscious non-interference with or allowance of actions and beliefs that one does not agree with or approve. In other words, it is a kind of patience that a person shows regarding the disagreeable beliefs, behaviors, and words of others (see: Saada-Gandron, 1999:17).

In view of the above, the following elements are requisites of tolerance:

1.         The existence of difference of opinion. Hence, harmony in a population with concordant beliefs cannot be termed tolerance.

2.         Unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Accordingly, tolerance does no mean indifferences or apathy or does it denoted acceptance of other beliefs or behaviour.

3.         Awareness and intention. Therefore, lack of reaction to the beliefs and behaviour of others that results from ignorance or carelessness is not tolerance.

4.         Power and authority. Thus, acquiescent or helpless moderation is not tolerance.

The opposite of tasamuh and tasahul is khushunat (aggression). The word khushuna means harshness, violence, firmness, forcefulness, and intransigence. Terminologically, it is any action against another that causes fear or distress, or at the very lest is not desirable or pleasing for the other party. This action may be physical such as assault and battery or murder, or it may be mental such as intimidation, insult, humiliation, or even relentless pertinacity regarding a belief or behaviour regarding others. The word ghilzat (coarseness) also has a meaning similar to khushunat (see: Dihkhuda Mu’in, and Al-Munjid).


Through the words tasamuh and tasahul are not used in religious texts, other words are used in our Narrations that can be considered approximate synonyms with these two words, including rifq (gentleness), mudara (moderateness), hilm (forbearance), and taysir (easygoingness).

Various Quranic verses and Narrations indicate that in some cases tolerance is desirable and praiseworthy. We call these instances ‘positive tolerance’. In other cases, that we term ‘negative tolerance’, the act of tolerance is undesirable and unfitting. Here I shall speak both of instances of positive and negative tolerance. As previously stated, my main emphasis is upon relevant Narrations, the teachings and practice of the holy Prophet (s) and Quranic verses. However, for comprehensiveness of the discourse, I will also discuss other verses and Narrations that are tangential to the subject a hand.


Some instances of positive tolerance in Islam are as follows:

1. Tolerance in Confronting People

Quranic verses and Narrations about the gentleness, easygoingness, and moderateness of the holy Prophet (s) and Infallible Imams (‘a) or others that recommend these matters indicate that individuals must act tolerantly in their encounters with others.

Regarding the key to the Prophet’s(s) success, the Quranic declares:

It is by Allah’s mercy that you are gentle to them; and had you been harsh and hardhearted, surely they would have scattered from around you. So excuse them and plead for forgiveness for them, and consult them in the affairs (3:159).

In this verse, in addition to God revealing the holy Prophet’s (s) gentleness to the people as his key to success, He commands the Prophet to forgive the mistakes of the people, ask God for their forgiveness, and consult with them in various affairs. All these guideline reflect the necessity of positive tolerance with people.

To be continued