Between understanding and tolerance

When I received the invitation of the Old Students Association of Ansarul Islam Model College (formerly Ahmadiya College, Agege) to speak at its Inaugural Legacy Seminar in honour of a great old student of the school, Alhaji Adilu Bello, I assured myself that I must be there on December 7, 2023 as scheduled for a number of reasons. Apart from the personality through whom the invitation came, the conviviality of the President of the Association’s UK Chapter, Mr Charles Obazuaye, who anchored the event, and my fascination with the school itself, being the first of its kind in West Africa, established as far back as May 1948, the theme of the seminar, “Religious Tolerance as a Core Principle of Islam”, was compelling and relevant.  

The world is increasingly going amok and part of the urgent need of the day is to dig out our traditional and religious values and put them on the front burner of discourse in order to make life more abundant for all in the face of the prevailing narrow-mindedness. One of those values is tolerance, which UNESCO defines as “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.”

Tolerance is an Islamic or religious virtue which everyone should imbibe. It is so important as a concept or principle that November 16 every year is declared as the International Day for Tolerance by the United Nations. The idea of tolerance is based on the fact that human beings are different in terms of their complexion, tastes, situations, behaviours, values, languages, cultures and appearance.

As such, religious tolerance refers to the acceptance and respect of different religious beliefs and practices or the ability to live harmoniously with people of different faiths, recognising their right to hold their own beliefs and worship in their own way. It is a commitment to respecting and valuing the faiths and practices of others, even if they differ from our own, and fostering an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence in a diverse society. Islam underscores this principle of tolerance by emphasising that there is no compulsion in religion (Quran 2:256) and that“for you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (Quran 109:6).

Meanwhile, as crucial and critical as tolerance is, it cannot exist in a vacuum. Tolerance is anchored on understanding as the relationship between the two is that of symbiosis. It is requires knowledge or understanding to accept others the way they are whereas tolerance itself is sustained by the understanding of the fundamental issues at stake. This is akin to the interface of theory and practice or knowledge and application each of which strengthens the other.

This relationship between understanding and tolerance can be situated within what happens in the family setting. While it is good for husband and wife to tolerate each other, the fact still remains that there is a limit to which tolerance can endure without understanding in a marriage. But when the husband and wife understand each other, know their own likes and dislikes, they find it much easier to sustain the relationship. The fact that more marriages crash these days is a function of failure to understand what the institution of marriage is all about and the lack of discretion on the part of the people involved.  

At the social, national and international levels, it is important for everyone to understand that all humanity is one since we all originated from the same source, Adam and Eve. It is from this duo that families, clans, tribes and nations emerged. The basis for the diversity of communities and nationalities is for mutual recognition and it is accepting this fact that constitutes the glue that binds people, sub-nationalities and states together.

In other words, all humanity is a single kinship and the type of consideration, affection, understanding, cooperation and tolerance that should operate among kith and kin is supposed to define all human relationships at all levels. Ignorance and arrogance breed intolerance and violence. If not, the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam recognise the centrality of Abraham as a common factor. Even where this understanding exists, the absence of the willingness to apply it to interpersonal, interfaith and international relations constitutes the basis of discrimination, racism, violence and genocide that manifest in today’s wild world.

It is high time human beings knew more of one another. That knowledge is a potential power as it becomes real power only if it is applied and used to advance development and avert violence. If Nigeria makes it compulsory, for instance, for everyone to know the other person’s language, culture and religion, that understanding will engender more integration. If Muslims are made to know Christianity and Christians are also required to learn Islam, the likely outcome is more cooperation and less bigotry.  

Humans oppose or fight what they don’t know. The more of the other we know, the more tolerant and empathetic or better individuals we become.