Tolerance in The Life of The Individual and Society
First of all, I would like to indicate that tolerance is not something that was invented by us. Tolerance was first introduced on this Earth by the prophets whose teacher was God. Even if it would not be correct to attribute tolerance to God, He has attributes that are rooted in tolerance, like forgiveness, the forgiveness of sins, compassion and mercy for all creatures, and the veiling of the shame and faults of others. The All-Forgiving, the All-Merciful, and the All-Veiling of Faults are among the most frequently mentioned names of God in the Qur’an.
The golden era when tolerance was represented at its apex was the Age of Happiness, and I would like to give some true examples from that historical time, events that extend in a line from that “period of roses” until today.
An Example of Forgiveness
As is known, in the historical “Event of Slander” the hypocrites made slanderous accusations against ‘A’isha, the chaste wife of the Prophet and the spiritual mother of all believers. ‘A’isha has a special place among the pure wives of the Prophet because the Prophet was the first man she saw when she awakened to womanhood. In a period when she became fully conscious of her womanhood, ‘A’isha became a member of the Prophet’s pure household and there she breathed only an atmosphere of chastity and honor. ‘A’isha, an exemplar of chastity, became subjected to a planned slander campaign during this period. Both herself, her family and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, suffered much because of this slander. However, the verse revealed approximately one month later declared ‘Aisha’s unadulterated purity and innocence. However, her father Abu Bakr, who had been giving financial support to one of those who was involved in the slander, took an oath not to give any more support to this person. But, the verse that was revealed warned that the most faithful friend of the Prophet, Sultan of Tolerance, should be more lenient.1 The verse reads:
Let not those among you who are endowed with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want, and those who have left their homes in God’s cause: let them forgive and overlook. Do you not wish that God should forgive you? For God is the All-Forgiving, the All-Merciful. (An-Nur 24:22)
I want to draw you attention in particular to the expression at the end of this verse: Do you not wish that God should forgive you? For God is the All-Forgiving, the All-Merciful. In reality, the All-Merciful God Whose mercy is unequalled and compared to which all the mercy in the world is but a drop in the ocean, continually secrets Himself and, in spite of everything, forgives us, forgives everything, from the unbecoming words that enter our ears and darken our spirits to the filth that flows into us from the universe and back to the society that we have polluted. His question, Do you not wish that God should forgive you? directed at people like us who are always in need of purification, is very fine and sincere and worthy of being coveted. By means of this verse, God indicates that just as He forgives us, so too should we forgive one another for the mistakes we make, and this is illustrated to us as a Qur’anic virtue in the character of Abu Bakr.
Forgiveness and tolerance are given great importance in the messages of the Prophets, which are from divine and celestial sources. A prophet has the duty of educating and training others. In order for the truths that he is conveying to influence the hearts of others, his own heart must beat with forgiveness and tolerance. When some faults that are the result of a person’s nature collide with the tolerant atmosphere of a person of truth, they melt and disperse like a meteor. Instead of splitting open someone’s head, the legions of light, which resemble the lamps lit on nights of celebration, will soothe the eyes and give joy to the heart. As I mentioned before, there is in actual fact such a divine virtue recommended in our Prophet’s hadith, “Take on the virtue of God.”2 Does not God Himself always forgive those who deny Him? On the cosmic plane this crime is unforgivable murder and rebellion. But look at the vastness of God’s forgiveness and pardon. In spite of the ungratefulness of His servants, He says:
Without doubt My Mercy precedes My Wrath.3 and My Mercy extends to all things. (Al-Araf 7:156)
With His attribute of Mercy, without showing any bias, He nurtures and protects all human beings and, indeed all animate creatures, and He continues to give sustenance even to those who deny Him.
Here it is possible to view all the prophets from the same perspective and present some examples from all of them, but let it suffice to give a few from Prophet Muhammad, the essence of existence, peace and blessings be upon him.
Hamza was one of the Companions whom the Prophet loved most. He was not just an ordinary Companion, he was also the Prophet’s uncle and they had both been nursed by the same wet-nurse. Suppressing his honor and pride, this lion-hearted giant of a man entered the spiritual atmosphere of the Pride of Humanity, peace and blessings be upon him. Supporting his nephew and saying “I am with you” at a critical time when the Muslims were weak in numbers raised his value manifold. Thus, by demonstrating the qualities of his closeness on the spiritual plane as well as on the physical plane, he was able to reach what seemed to be an unattainable height of greatness. Of course, the loyalty of this great hero was rewarded by the Prophet. He was martyred one day while fighting at Uhud; his bloody murderers had sworn to raid Medina and to run every man and woman through. At the hands of his murderers, their hands, eyes and thoughts bloody, Hamza was chopped into pieces. His sacred eyes were gorged out, his ears and lips cut off, his chest was split open and his liver was torn out and bitten into. The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, whose bosom was full of compassion and mercy, looked at this horrifying scene and his eyes filled with tears like clouds of rain. There were seventy martyrs at the battle of Uhud— twice as many again had been wounded—women were widowed and children were orphaned. When he looked at this scene with the compassion of a prophet, it was almost unbearable. The children of Hamza and the children of other martyrs appeared before the Prophet, shivering like newly hatched chicks. As related in his biographical works, no sooner than the thought “In retribution for what they have done . . .” had crossed his mind was the following verse revealed:
And if you have to respond to any wrong, respond to the extent of the wrong done to you; but if you endure patiently, this is indeed better for he who endures. (An-Nahl 16:126)
In this verse he was being directed to a horizon of understanding according to his level, and in other words he was told, “You should not think like that.” That sun of leniency and tolerance, peace and blessings be upon him, buried all the pain in his chest and chose the road of patience.
Actually, the Prophet interwove the whole of his life, not only that moment, with tolerance. The polytheists did not spare him any torture or trouble. They drove him out of his homeland, formed armies, and attacked him. But even after the conquest of Makka, when the pagans were anxiously waiting to see how they would be treated, as a sign of his vast compassion and mercy the Prophet said:
I speak as Joseph spoke to his brothers: There is no reproach for you today (because of your previous acts). God will forgive you also. He is the Most Merciful of the Merciful. Go; you are free.4
The Qur’an is the source of leniency and tolerance, and because these concepts have flowed to us like an exuberant stream from the Conveyor of the Qur’an, peace and blessings be upon him, we cannot think any differently on this matter. Any contrary idea would mean that we do not know the Qur’an and God’s Messenger. From this perspective, because tolerance derives from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, it is a Muslim’s natural virtue and, because of the sources it is derived from, it is permanent. The covenant that the Messenger of God presented to the Christians and Jews is truly worthy of attention (the original text of the covenant is preserved today in England). Compared to the principles that our Prophet put forth, humanity today has not attained his level, neither with the declarations of human rights put forth in The Hague or Strasbourg nor that in Helsinki. That Man of Great Forbearance lived together closely with the People of the Book in Medina. In fact, he was even able to find points of agreement with the dark souls who, even though they said, “We are Muslims,” continuously caused friction everywhere and tried to play those with clear consciences one against another. He embraced them by means of forbearance. Upon the death of Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who had been a lifelong enemy, the Prophet even gave his shirt as a burial shroud. Saying, “As long as there is no revelation forbidding me, I will attend his funeral,” and he showed his respect to the deceased.5 There is no message similar or equal to the message given to humankind by Prophet Muhammad. Thus, it is not possible for those who try and follow “the Most Beautiful Example” to think differently from what he thought.
In this respect, it is not possible to think of tolerance as something that is separate from us; it is a different color and tone of our feelings and thoughts. From this time on platforms for tolerance should be developed in our society. Tolerance should be rewarded, it should be given precedence at every opportunity, and those who behave with forgiveness to others should have a chance to express themselves.
Gathering around these ideas and feelings, the Journalists and Writers Foundation formed a committee and recently gave awards for tolerance to people who had been seen as having made a significant contribution to social reconciliation. This action was approved of by almost every segment of society—from politicians to people involved in the arts, from academics to journalists, writers, and the people in the street. Of course, a marginal group that was not synchronized with the general public, due to their different worldview, expressed their displeasure at an activity that everyone else had embraced; they made the mistake of reproaching the individuals and institutions that said yes to this consensus.
But let them say what they will. At a time when the world has become like a large village and at a point when our society is on the verge of great change and transformation, if we are talking about dialogue with other nations, then it will not be possible to explain away our disagreements with one another. In this respect, tolerance is a matter that needs to be rewarded and for this reason, tolerance must permeate all of society. So much so that universities should breathe tolerance, politicians should talk about tolerance, people in the music world should write lyrics about tolerance, and the media should give support to positive developments concerning tolerance.
Tolerance does not mean being influenced by others or joining them; it means accepting others as they are and knowing how to get along with them. No one has the right to say anything about this kind of tolerance; everyone in this country has his or her own point of view. People with different ideas and thoughts are either going to seek ways of getting along by means of reconciliation or they will constantly fight with one another. There have always been people who thought differently to one another and there always will be. It is my humble opinion that those people who are the mouthpiece for certain marginal groups that neither affirm the divine scriptures God sent nor the realities of today and who start fights at the drop of a hat should review their position one more time. Are they making their claims for the sake of human values or for the sake of destroying human values?
Today, more than anything else, our society is in need of tolerance. In fact, our nation should have this dynamic today and should give it priority; it should represent tolerance to the world because our glorious ancestors captured the hearts of people by means of tolerance and became the protectors of the general peace. The longest period of peace in the Balkans and the Middle East, which have always been volatile areas, was realized with the enduring tolerance of our ancestors. From the moment that tolerance and those great representatives left history, this region became void of peace and contentment. Thanks to the grace of God, after several centuries of life in limbo, this great nation has begun walking toward resurrection. This great “plane tree,” the leaves of which are beginning to bud in the bosom of Anatolia, with the grace and bounty of God, should once more breathe tolerance itself and teach others to breathe tolerance.
At the same time, our citizens in European countries can only live in harmony in those countries by means of a vast atmosphere of tolerance.
Here, I would like to underscore one point. Being tolerant does not mean foregoing the traditions that come from our religion, or our nation, or our history; tolerance is something that has always existed. The Ottomans were faithful both to their religion and to other values and, at the same time, they were a great nation that could get along with other world states. If the people of today, who are civilized, enlightened, and open to the world, are going to fall short of those who lived in that period, then this means they have not understood this age. In this respect, as individuals, as families and as a society, we have to speed up this process that has already begun. I personally believe that even the people who do not share our feelings and thoughts will soften when we go to see them. Thus, in the name of dialogue we can unite on common ground and shake hands with all. This is because the things that God gives most value to are human beings, love, and compassion.
The Value the Messenger of God Gave to Humanity
More than anything else, with the training he received from his Lord, the Pride of Humankind gave value to every human being, regardless of whether that person was a Muslim, Christian, or Jew. Before leaving this subject, it would be beneficial to see what kind of a visionary man he was. He was the Pride of Humanity—his spirit was the beginning of the book of existence, and his message was the end. This is self-evident to those who know the Prophet’s mission. We know him as one by whose light the universe can be observed and read like a book. However much humankind, the Prophet’s followers in particular, take pride in their connection with the Prophet of Mercy, it is not too much. As one who loved him said, how fortunate we are to be connected with him. In fact, regarding the great blessing he received, the Messenger of God said:
The first thing God created—the first seed that was sown in the bosom of non-existence—was my light.6
This is true because he is the seed, the essence, and the summary of existence. If we express this same sentiment in Sufi terms, the existence of Muhammad was both the reason for creation and its final goal. Existence was created for him to be able to come into it as the embodiment of all human values and as a theater in which all the manifestations of God’s Names would be apparent.
As I have mentioned at other times in different contexts, the Pride of Humanity, the reason for creation and the Prince of Prophets, one day stood up as a Jewish funeral was passing by. One of the Companions at his side said, “O Messenger of God, that’s a Jew.” Without any change in attitude or alteration of the lines on his face, the Prince of Prophets gave this answer: “But he is a human being!”7 May the ears ring of those followers who do not know him in these dimensions and those human rights advocates who are ignorant of the universal message he brought in the name of humankind! There is nothing I can add to these words, but if we are disciples of the glorious Prophet who spoke these words, it is not possible for us to think any differently. Thus, it would be beneficial for those who oppose the recent activities made in the name of dialogue and tolerance to review their situations in respect to their heedlessness or their obstinacy that has permeated their personalities and spirits.
Tolerance and Democracy
Democracy is a system that gives everyone who is under its wing the opportunity to live and express their own feelings and thoughts. Tolerance comprises an important dimension of this. In fact, it can be said that democracy is out of the question in a place where tolerance does not exist. But come and see some of those who, on the one hand, talk about democracy, but who at the same time want the source that nurtures it to dry up. In a democratic country everyone should be able to take advantage of democratic rights and responsibilities. If one segment of society becomes upset by the existence of another segment, then it is obvious that those who are upset are not sincere, to say the least, in their claim that “we are democrats and supporters of democracy.” As I mentioned above, it is not possible for democracy to take root in a place where there is no tolerance. In fact, advocates of democracy should be able to accept even those who do not share their views, and they should open their hearts to others.
Here it is beneficial to stress this point. Accepting all people as they are, regardless of who they are, does not mean putting believers and unbelievers on the same side of the scales. According to our way of thinking, the position of believers and unbelievers has its own specific value. The Pride of Humanity has a special position and his place in our hearts is separate from and above all others. In relation to this point, I would like to inform you of my feelings. After returning from a visit to the rest-ing-place of our Prophet, I was very sad that I had not died there. I thought that if I really loved him then I should have clung to the iron railing and died on the spot. Until that day, I had thought that my attachment to the Prophet was that great. Of course, he has a very high place in our hearts and we would not want anyone to harm him in any way, but even though I have such strong feelings and thoughts about him this does not prevent me from entering into dialogue with someone who does not think or believe the same.
Tolerance and the Future
Even if we have different feelings and thoughts, we are all people of this society. Even though we may not have common grounds on some matters, we all live in this world and we are passengers on the same ship. In this respect, there are many common points that can be discussed and shared with people from every segment of society.
In all probability, time will clarify everything and prove that those who started the trend of tolerance were right. Again, time will discard feelings and thoughts of grudge and vengeance. Only feelings fed with love, forgiveness, tolerance, and dialogue will continue. People of tolerance will build a world based on tolerance. Those whose lot is not tolerance will drown in their malice, hatred, and anger in the well of intolerance. It is my wish that people such as these will wake up and not drown in the swamp into which they have fallen. Or else we will have to cry for them as well. I can already feel this pain and I am greatly grieved by it!
By M. Fethullah Gulen
- Bukhari, Shahadah, 15:30; Muslim, Tawbah, 56.
- Mansur Ali Nasif, al-Tac, 1:13.
- Bukhari, Tawhid 15, 22, 28, 55, Badi’ul’-Halk 1; Muslim, Tawba 14, (2751); Tirmidhi, Daawat 109, (3537).
- Ibn al-Athir, Usd al-Ghabah, 1:528-532.
- Bukhari, Janaiz, 85; Tafsir al-Baraa, 12; Muslim, Fadail al-Sahaba, 25.
- Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa’, 1:266.
- Bukhari, Janaiz, 50; Muslim, Janaiz, 81; Nasai, Janaiz, 46.
The author occasionally delivers impromptu speeches to visiting groups and answers questions on various issues. This section is one of those speeches, which was recorded on January 13, 1996.