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Newsletter for January 2009


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Beyond The Tower of Babel: A Linguistic Approach to Clarifying Key Concepts in Islamic Pluralism

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

(The paper read  at the Conference on Citizenship, Security and Democracy, Istanbul, 1-3 September 2006)

 Courtesy: Dr. Robert Crane


    The Qur’an is unique among the revealed scriptures of the world in the explicit manner in which it divinely ordains religious diversity and enjoins dialogue between adherents of different faith-communities. My purpose in this paper is not to repeat what is already well known but to attempt to develop a focused linguistic approach which can begin to build a nuanced terminology in English for understanding key Islamic concepts of Unity and Diversity.

     One essential need is to exercise the defining power of ‘aql  in distinguishing authentic concepts from their distortions and counterfeits and thus avoid being taken in or manipulated by ideological labels.

    We must distinguish identity from tribalism and sectarianism, diversity from division, and unity from uniformity and the curse of standardised mono-cultural attitudes which dichotomise reality into competing unilateral or unipolar worldviews and ultimately into the isolating pathologies of civilisational narcissism and cultural autism. At the same time we need to distinguish conformation to a divine pattern from uncritical conformity to human constructions; the authority of divine revelation which liberates the human soul from the authoritarianism imposed by narrow human formulations which imprison it; and the existence of absolute and timeless truths from the tyranny of an absolutism which obliterates all context. The process can be carried further to distinguish community from communalism, relationship from relativism, and individuality from individualism and solipsism. 

Awareness of distinctions such as these can help us towards the positive embodiment of the pluralistic Qur’anic vision of Unity within Diversity, but not through passive acknowledgement of the mere existence of plurality, or by mere tolerance of the “other”, but by following the divine injunction to “know one another”, and to explore the best of all traditions through respectful co-existence, mutual recognition, active engagement, and transforming love.


 I am sure most of us know some version of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis[i] and even those of us who do not may be familiar with the metaphorical application of the word ‘Babel’ to denote a confused medley of sounds or the din of mutually incomprehensible speech.[ii]


According to the Genesis account, the Tower of Babel was erected by the descendants of Nuh (Noah) in Shinar in a presumptuous attempt to reach up to heaven. As a punishment for their arrogant hubris, God confounded them by making the builders unable to understand each other’s speech; hence, according to legend, the fragmentation of human speech into the various languages of the world, and also the dispersion of mankind over the face of the earth.


My starting point today is to question the legendary belief that God’s punishment was the fragmentation of human speech into different languages and the dispersion of humankind into separate races. The Qur’an does not support the idea that the diversity of languages and races is a punishment or a burden placed on mankind.  On the contrary, the Qur’an is unique among the revealed scriptures of the world in the explicit manner in which it divinely ordains unity in diversity, not only in terms of culture, language and race, but also in religion.[iii] Pluralism, quite simply, is part of the fitrah, the essential nature or primordial condition of the human being.[iv]


The key verses of the Qur’an are well known, but let me repeat them, because they cannot be repeated enough:


And among his wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colours: for in this, behold, there are signs indeed for all who are endowed with knowledge! (Qur’an 30:22)[v]


And never have We sent forth any apostle other than in his own people’s tongue, so that he might make the truth clear unto them. ~ Qur’an 14:4.


Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life.[vi] And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return

and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (Qur’an 5:48)[vii]


Furthermore, the Qur’an tells us that we must go beyond the unchallenging mediocrity of mere tolerance of diversity and seek to “know one another”.


We…have made you into nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another. (Qur’an 49:13)[viii]


Now, we cannot truly know one another if our relationship with each other is little more than a kind of sullen tolerance, a “passive form of hostility”, a “shaky truce”, or, as is sometimes the case, an “expression of privilege”.[ix]  Omid Safi reminds us that “the connotations of ‘tolerance’ are deeply problematic…the root of the word tolerance comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology, “marking how much poison a body could ‘tolerate’ before it would succumb to death.” He asks:  “Is this the best that we can do? Is it our task to figure out how many ‘others’ we can tolerate before it really kills us? Is this the most sublime height of pluralism we can aspire to?”[x] Like him, I don’t want merely to ‘tolerate’ my fellow human beings, “but rather to engage them at the deepest level of what makes us human, through both our phenomenal commonality and our dazzling cultural differences. “The diversity of my people is a blessing”,[xi] the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said. And when the Prophet walked, he did not look straight ahead of him, but he


And it is this quality of active engagement which distinguishes the authentic Qur’anic spirit of pluralism.[xii] As Diana Eck passionately argues, pluralism is a “truth-seeking encounter” which goes well beyond the passive acknowledgment or tolerance of the mere existence of plurality or cosmopolitanism, or even the celebration of it, as the cliché goes. Tolerance “does not require us to know anything new, it does not even entertain the fact that we might change in the process.”[xiii] 


d neither can we know one another if we are indifferent to each other, or ignorant of each other’s existence. Diana Eck relates how, in the Elmhurst area of Queens, a suburb of New York, a New York Times reporter found people from eleven countries on a single floor of an apartment building. There were immigrants from Korea, Haiti, Vietnam, Nigeria, and India – all living in isolation, and fear – each certain they were the only immigrants there. Diversity in a cosmopolitan city, to be sure, but not pluralism by any stretch of the imagination.[xiv] We cannot engage if we remain rooted to the spot like stone statues unable to see the world around us.

 Last year I went to the USA a number of times to participate in an initiative to improve education and reframe perceptions about Islam and Muslims in the USA. On the day I arrived in Washington DC on my latest trip there, there was an article in the Washington Post which described how mental health professionals in the USA, including psychiatrists, are finding such an increase in extreme fear and suspicion of the “other” that they believe it has reached a stage in the national consciousness where it has become an identifiable pathology which needs to be described and treated as a mental illness. Its main symptoms are irrational prejudice, a constant feeling of threat, and an incapacitating sense of isolation.

 In Perelandra,[xv] the first book of his remarkable science fiction trilogy, C.S. Lewis describes how a Cambridge philologist is kidnapped by a fellow professor and is taken on a fantastic voyage to Mars with the intention of offering him to the native population as a ‘ransom’ in exchange for gold. Our hero, however, makes friends with the beings that inhabit the red planet and discovers that they live a life infinitely more civilised than their counterparts on earth. The three races of conscious beings which inhabit the planet[xvi] are reminiscent of Norse and Germanic mythology, but there is something strikingly different about Lewis’s conception. In the Norse tales, there is often conflict, rivalry and division between the different races and orders of beings, whether gods, giants, humans (both heroic and villainous), mythical beasts and dwarves, fuelled by mutual contempt, suspicion and lust for wealth and power. But on C.S. Lewis’s Mars, the three races live together in perfect harmony, sharing their talents and their provisions, and never exploiting each other or the planet’s resources. They acknowledge and appreciate their differences and see them as a source of strength. Their need for otherness is satisfied by their mutually supporting and interdependent relationship with the people of other races. Any other agenda is simply not in their hearts. This is the primordial condition.[xvii]

 Nancy Kline has written: “Diversity raises the intelligence of groups. Homogeneity is a form of denial.”[xviii]  Let us highlight this point that pluralism, the willingness to embrace diversity, is a matter of intelligence. As we have already noted, the Qur’an tells us that in the diversity of tongues and colours, there are signs indeed for all who are endowed with knowledge!   And what then are the signs of ignorance? Bigotry, division, dichotomisation, one-sidedness, isolationism, exclusivism,[xix] intolerance, the self-sufficient and self-interested solipsism which dismantles relationships, triumphalism, self-aggrandisement, and the fear, suspicion and hatred which demonise the “other”. I believe that Riad Nourallah will refer in his paper[xx] to the book The Future of Islam, published in 1882 by the British diplomat W.S. Blunt, a book which called for the need to establish a new relationship between Europe and Islam based on mutual respect and recognition and the renunciation of policies and ideologies of conquest and conversion. Has there ever been a time when the revival of such a vision was more sorely needed? Let us hope that Martin Luther King’s vision of a world in which “our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional” will be realised.

 Some, however, may agree with Chandra Muzaffar’s assessment that “the centres of power in the West …are not interested in a multi-civilisational world that is based on justice, equality and respect for diversity.”[xxi]

 But wait a minute. Let us not polarise this argument into categorical generalisations about East and West which support the pernicious doctrine of the Clash of Civilisations. Are religious exclusivists hostile to other faiths and other cultures, whether of the East or the West, whether Muslim, Christian or Jew, any more interested in a multi-civilisational world than the supremacists Muzaffar sees as occupying the centres of power in the West? There are schools in London, and I am sure elsewhere in the West, which are beacons of pluralism, while there are schools in the Muslim world which openly teach the children in their charge “not to greet” the kafirun, by which, with no justification in the Qur’an, they mean people of other faiths.

 Let us take stock for a moment. I am questioning the conventional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story which holds that the diversity of languages and races is a punishment visited on mankind by God for arrogance and presumption. On the contrary, the Qur’an tells us that diversity is a gift, an element of man’s primordial condition, a sign for the intelligent, an opportunity to know one another and to vie with one another in doing good works. 

 So what is meant then by the confusion of tongues which arises from human presumption and arrogance?

 Let me illustrate the answer with a story from a classic of Islamic spirituality.[xxii] Four travellers, a Persian, a Turk, an Arab, and a Greek, are quarrelling about how best to spend a single coin, which was the only piece of money they had between them. They all want grapes, but they do not realise this because each of them has a different word for the fruit. A traveller hears them quarrelling, realises that they all want the same thing, and offers to satisfy all their needs with the one coin they possess. He goes off and buys them a bunch of grapes, and they are all astonished to discover that their different words were referring to the same thing.

 Now, like all parables, this is a multi-layered story. On the surface, the confusion is caused by language differences, and it takes a multi-lingual traveller, a translator, to unravel the confusion of tongues. And this literal level is the level represented by the conventional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, where mutual incomprehension is the result of everybody speaking different languages. The meaning of the parable of course goes much deeper than this. We all yearn to remember the divine unity (tawhid) but we give it different names and have different conceptions of what it is. Only the sage, represented here by the traveller-linguist, can show us that what we yearn for is, deep down, the same thing.

 True, many misunderstandings do arise from poor understanding of foreign terms, from translation problems, such as the impossibility of capturing the full range of connotations of a foreign word,[xxiii] and so on, but there is a much deeper level here. It goes far beyond the cacophony and strife caused by people who mistakenly believe that Allah is different from God, because He has a different name,[xxiv] or that the word fatwa means a death-sentence (yes, it’s true – even many distinguished and influential policy-makers believe this), or that jihad means holy war, or that mushrik means a polytheist or that kafir means a non-Muslim.[xxv]  It also goes beyond the more subtle imbalances caused by the difficulty in capturing in translation all the associations of a particular word.

 The remedy for these kinds of misunderstandings and distortions can be provided to a large extent by properly informed and corrective education which brings to light the authentic meanings of key terms in any tradition. This requires both deep scholarship, a long-term commitment to engage with mainstream curriculum development agencies and teachers, and communicative competence in making concepts accessible to the contemporary mind so that they impact effectively on dedicated programmes of inter-cultural and inter-faith education. 

 As Dr. Anas so eloquently reminded us in his own opening remarks, there can be little doubt about the increase of Islamophobia[xxvi] as the most glaring instance of xenophobia and racism in the world today. A recent poll from Gallup/USA Today[xxvii] reveals that almost 40% of Americans believe that Muslims, including those who are US citizens, should be required to carry a special ID. The same percentage owned up to having “at least some feelings of prejudice against Muslims”. Only a few days ago it was reported on the BBC Today programme[xxviii] that 59% of British people believe that Islam is a threat to the West.  Such attitudes owe much to the trepidation caused by what Eric Margolis calls “the big lie technique”. The latest meaningless buzz word generated by this propaganda machine is “Islamo-Fascism”[xxix] used, as Margolis points out, “to dehumanise and demonise”.

 As Dr. Anas reminds us, it is education which has to be the most important long-term means of stemming this growing tide of Islamophobia,[xxx] and not only through the curriculum, but through the training of teachers to deliver effectively a diversity-friendly curriculum which may actually already exist,[xxxi] and the training of headteachers to provide the leadership in creating a unified school culture which respects and actively engages with diversity.

 The problem may not be that programmes do not exist but that teachers do not generally have the time to deliver them. The whole system is in the stranglehold of an assessment system which values content and functional skills above all else. In this climate, education in diversity may come very low on the list of priorities. The same goes for critical thinking education. There is some good work going on in British schools based on various models and programmes of critical thinking education, but lack of time may often result in lip-service being paid to this vital dimension of education. Often, at best, these programmes are reduced only to those aspects which serve utilitarian goals or which “drive up standards” in conventional tests of attainment.[xxxii]

 The need for well-informed and open-hearted teachers applies not only to teachers who may be called on to teach about religions of which they are not adherents, but also those who teach about their own faith. The need for informed and enlightened role models applies in all directions. I could give you many examples of where such education has failed, both in the West and the East.[xxxiii]

So, yes, the curriculum and the training of teachers always needs to be improved. But the deeper problems are systemic, and include an impoverished educational philosophy imposed from above which makes little space for teachers to deliver higher objectives even if they were educated to do so.

 I will reserve the heart of my comments on education until the end of this talk, when I will not dwell on failure but give a shining example of success.

 My main purpose today is to explore a different level of the Tower of Babel story, the symbolic level which points to a deeper and more elusive level of confusion and mutual incomprehensibility than the diversity of languages. This is the confusion caused by the degradation of authentic concepts. And this is not a matter of different languages, but of words in the same language understood by people in different ways, or words from the same root with different forms.

 Let me give an example. We would all agree, I am sure, that there is a serious derangement in the relationship between man and the created order at the present time, and that one form this takes is a sustained assault on diversity from many directions. For example, globalisation threatens cultural and linguistic diversity, and rampant exploitation of the earth in the service of “growth” and “development” is causing the extinction of many species of animals and plants.[xxxiv] Recent research indicates that the rate of extinction of the world’s languages is faster even than the alarming rate of extinction of species.[xxxv]

 This destruction of diversity is a travesty of the concept of unity, for the universe was created as a manifestation of unity in diversity and not as a uniform entity. When a sacred conception of what is beyond the visible is lost to a culture, then the reflection of unity in the human soul is transposed to the forms themselves. The outcome is the need to make things uniform, to homogenise.  The homogenising impulse springs from the denial of the Unseen, which is a denial of God. This confusion between unity and uniformity is a typical example of the confusion caused by the distortion and degradation of key concepts and this is what the Tower of Babel story is telling us at a symbolic level. A Tower built by people who sought to usurp the eminence of God symbolises the arrogance which seeks to impose uniformity on a plural world.[xxxvi] It is the Promethean theft of what belongs to God alone, bringing it down to a base level where its reflection is distorted beyond recognition.

 We can identify many other key concepts which are also subject to this degradation and distortion. Just as uniformity is a travesty of unity, so the division caused by tribalism, sectarianism and narrow identity politics is a corruption of diversity. At the same time we need to distinguish conformation to a divine pattern[xxxvii] from uncritical conformity to human constructions; the authority of divine revelation which liberates the human soul from the authoritarianism imposed by narrow human formulations which imprison it; and the existence of absolute and timeless truths from the tyranny of an absolutism which obliterates all context. The process can be carried further to distinguish standards[xxxviii] from standardisation, community from communalism, science from scientism, relationship[xxxix] from relativism, individuality from individualism, liberty from libertarianism,[xl] religion from religiosity, ideas from ideology, forms from formalisms, doctrine from dogmatisms,[xli] morality from moralisms, and the true democracy assured by an informed populace[xlii] from the demagoguery which thrives on repetitive rhetoric directed at the ignorant or those kept from the truth by biased media.

 There are many more pairs of related words, and I only touch on them here. There are problematic pairs too, such as tradition in the sense of perennial wisdom and traditionalism in the sense of a conservative, orthodox and even anti-progressive and reactionary outlook. The same applies to the distinction between a vision of progress rooted in innate human values (such as concern for the advancement and welfare of our fellow human beings) and that brand of rootless progressivism which is dogmatically inimical to the past or merely synonymous with the blind worship of technological advancement. The confusion over what is meant by the words tradition and progress is perhaps the best example of the Tower of Babel at this time. We all tread carefully around these terms, lest we be labelled in the wrong way. How many people have the insight to see that one can be wedded to tradition and progress at the same time, and that the espousal of one does not entail the rejection of the other?

 We need to build a lexicon of authentic concepts and distinguish them from their forgeries. The preponderance of the abstract noun –ism suffix on the negative side should alert us to the fact that many of the degraded meanings are not authentic ideas in the original Platonic sense but the product of human ideology,[xliii] - abstract systems of doctrine and belief constructed by human minds rooted neither in revealed wisdom nor in higher human faculties.

 It is linguistic precision which is one of the foremost conceptual keys to avoiding the Clash of Civilisations. This is because without the recovery of the authentic primordial concepts,[xliv] we can only ever confound ourselves in the mutually uncomprehending hostility of competing ideologies.


And this is the core of the problem, this tendency of the human mind to dichotomise. This impulse to engage in adversarial argument is ingrained in us because we inhabit a world of duality.[xlv] The gift of language, given to man alone by God when He “imparted unto Adam the names of all things[xlvi] itself has two sides, mirrored in two levels of the faculty of human reason (‘aql). The root meaning of the word ‘aql is to ‘bind’ or ‘withhold”, indicating the human capacity for separating, defining and differentiating meanings so as to arrive at precise and distinct concepts. This is one level of “reason”. If well developed, it is an indispensable cognitive tool for advancing the mature dialogue and dialectic which fosters the critical refinement of ideas, and as such it ought to be the foundation all education in thinking skills. If poorly developed, or if contaminated by ideology, the same innate faculty of differentiation can easily become a negative force, one which reduces the positive process of dialectic to the irreconcilable dichotomies and polarised positions of adversarial debate, and ultimately to a destructive us-versus-them mentality which can only lead to war.[xlvii]

 It is good to see that during this conference many of these dangerous dichotomies will be examined and rejected. Muqtedar Khan, for example, will urge us to “transcend the dichotomy between the sovereignty of revelation and the sovereignty of reason and the debilitating juxtaposition of Islam as the past and modernity as the future.”  Jeremy Walton will question the false dichotomy between what he calls an “Occi-centric notion of civil society as a defining characteristic of Western civilisation and the lack of it in Islamic civilisation”. The pathological approach towards Islam typical of orientalism will be examined by Anas al Shaikh-Ali in his exposé of images of Islam and Muslims in popular fiction in the West,

 From the other side, we need to examine and challenge the “bipolar Muslim discourse” which divides people into “believers and unbelievers”, insulates the Muslim world from internal reform, and forges an identity almost entirely upon opposition to the secular “other”.

 I said there were two levels of the faculty of ‘aql, and I want to refer briefly to the higher level which goes beyond even the positive differentiation which enables us to think with clarity and precision. Al-Niffari reminds us that the letter (i.e. language) is a veil that separates us from unity precisely because it is a tool of endless diversification and multiplicity.[xlviii] As well as being given the Names that enable us to differentiate, we are also endowed with fitrah, that innate disposition which enables us to remember the unity of our primordial condition. It is that common yearning for that essential unity, however it is defined, which is the inner meaning of the story of the Travellers and the Grapes. To go beyond dichotomies, to see through this veil, we must realise that the gift of ’aql is not only one of intellectual definition but also a faculty of deeper intelligence and discernment resident in the human heart. As the hadith qudsi tells us: “Only the heart of my faithful servant can encompass Me.”

So let me end with a call to the Heart.  I would like to tell you about a model of pluralism in an English primary school which totally vindicates my confidence in the fitrah of young people if only they can be given strong, positive, humane, visionary leadership.  We can continue to argue about the extent to which Chandra Muzaffar is right when he claims that “the centres of power in the West …are not interested in a multi-civilisational world”, but we must never forget that in democratic states it is the people who elect such centres of power, and that is the people who often uphold core values in the face of their betrayal by those very centres of power.[xlix] Above all, it is young people to whom we must entrust the revival and embodiment of those values. We do this, or we should do it, through a process of education which gives ample space for respectful co-existence, mutual recognition, active engagement, and transforming love. 

 A vital element in such an education has to be the opportunities it gives young people to understand the human condition in all its diversity and complexity. We must resist the trend in modern utilitarian schooling systems to devalue not only the creative arts and the qualitative dimensions of science and mathematics,[l] but also to marginalize many humanities subjects such as history,[li] archaeology,[lii] geography,[liii] and modern languages.[liv] This impoverishment of the curriculum will only ensure that an ignorance of the richness of human heritage and diversity is compounded by an incompetence in cross-cultural communication, and this will remove our young people even further from that rich educational experience which is a prerequisite for truly human development.[lv]

 Roland Barth, Professor of Education at Harvard University, has said:

 “I would prefer my children to be in a school where differences were looked for, attended to, and celebrated as good news, as opportunities for learning…I would like to see our disdain for differences among students replaced by the question, How can we make use of the differences for the powerful learning opportunity they hold…..What is important about people – and about schools – is what is different, not what is the same.”[lvi]


On 26 July this year there was a remarkable picture which took up the whole front page of the Independent newspaper in the UK. The headline above it reads: “26 Pupils. 26 Languages. One Lesson for Britain.”  The picture showed  26 smiling, happy children from Uphall Primary School in Ilford, England, with their head teacher. I have it here if you want to see it and it will warm your hearts. The children depicted speak 26 different languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujerati, Somali, Swahili, Russian, Polish, Bengali, Shona, Yoruba, Tamil, Turkish, Dari, Pashto, Lingala, Xhosa, Filipino, Dutch, Lugandan, Mina, and Bravanese. Three out of ten of these children are asylum seekers or refugees.  The total number of languages spoken by all the children in this school is 52, and 90% of them speak a language other than English at home. When they leave almost 100% of them are bilingual.

 Is this a Tower of Babel? Absolutely not, although those poor souls crippled by fear of the “other” will have it so. As the headteacher, Andrew Morrish, said:

 “The racial harmony in school is marvellous – children do not see anyone as different. In 20 years’ time if some of these children were world leaders, the world would be a better place.”

 An OFSTED inspection report described the school as “outstanding”. Despite the fact that almost all the children have English as an additional language, 79% of them reach the expected standard in English in National Curriculum tests for 11-year-olds, and results in general are in line with the national average.

 The caption under the picture reads: “These children come from all over the world. Some say they reflect an immigration crisis. But as ministers unveiled a crackdown [on immigration], their school was being lauded. Shouldn’t this teach us something?” asks the newspaper.

 Yes, indeed it should. It should teach us that the Tower of Babel is not the multilingual, multicultural world which we increasingly occupy. This is the hopeful future, and the vanguard are our young people. The Tower of Babel is the mutual incomprehension fomented by those whose goal is to divide us along national, cultural, linguistic, religious or ideological lines. Whether of the East or the West, their impoverished mono-cultural attitudes, masquerading as superior civilisation principles, dichotomise reality into the either/or of competing worldviews and fixed unilateral positions, and ultimately into the isolating pathologies of religious exclusivist, civilisation narcissism and cultural autism. This self-righteous attribution of goodness, truth, salvation or civilisation only to a single perspective is a sclerosis of the spirit, a failure of the heart, and we owe it to our children and their children to expose it for what it is. It is a dying paradigm, and the people who try to sell it to us are people of the past, not of the future.

 Look up, and not down; Out and not in;
Forward and not back; And lend a hand.

~ Edward Everett Hale.

 I want to head off into the future with the children of Uphall Primary School, and I urge this conference with all my heart to do the same.

 ©Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

August 2006





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