Armonia: Fitting Together in a Plural World


The word Armonia, and its English equivalent Harmony, come from Greek harmonia via Latin, and ultimately from the Indo-European root ar-, which had the sense of ‘joining’ or ‘fitting together’, very much like the modern sense of an orderly, congruent and aesthetically pleasing arrangement of parts.  The English word arm, in its two senses of ‘limb’ and ‘weapon’ also comes from the same root, as does the word art through Latin ars, ‘skill’. The original sense of the ‘skill’ required to ‘join things together’ is retained in the word ‘artisan’.[1]

There is a revealing semantic correspondence here with the word craft in English.  This originally meant ‘strength’ or ‘power’ in Germanic, but it also developed the additional sense of ‘skill’ in Old English, probably because of the way in which skill (as in the forging of weapons) was an obvious source of power.  The pejorative sense of ‘crafty’ as deviously ‘artful’ or ‘cunning’ may have arisen from the influence of the Church in rejecting any association of power with pre-Christian pagan culture. ‘The Craft’ can be used to refer to sorcery, as much as to the society of Freemasons.  In the same way, the word cunning itself did not always mean ‘skillfully deceitful’ (as in the wiles of the devil), but simply meant ‘knowledge’ or ‘ability’, as preserved in the words can and canny, or Scots ken.  

The primordial Indo-European sense of harmony as ‘fitting together’ converges with the Germanic root fagraz (‘fitting’) which produced the English word fair, with its dual sense of justice/equity and beauty/proportion.   In the same way, it is fascinating to observe that the word decent in English comes from Latin decens which meant ‘fitting’ and is also etymologically related to the word ‘dignity’.

The range of meanings of the word fair reflects a truly Qur’anic concept, the idea that to be just is to ‘do what is beautiful’ (ihsan), to act in accordance with our original nature (fitra), which God has shaped in ‘just proportions’[2] as a ‘fitting’ reflection of divine order and harmony.  Indeed, ‘Everything have We created in due measure and proportion.’[3]  Above all, God created man ‘in the best conformation’[4] to the Divine pattern, or ‘in the best of moulds’.[5]  The Arabic word ‘adl also combines the sense of justice with that of proportion, rectification, and counter-balance.

The underlying meaning of harmony as ‘fitting together’ has much to contribute to a positive vison of multicultural and plural societies.  This is a pressing concern at a time of increasing societal tensions associated not only with the practicalities of dealing with migration on an unprecedented scale, but also with the stark cultural and ideological divisions promulgated by what Fred Halliday has aptly called the ‘incendiary banalities’ of the ‘pernicious doctrine’ of the Clash of Civilisations.[6]

While the strong triumphalist version of this doctrine is associated with neo-conservative ideologues[7] preaching the superiority of ‘Western civilization’, reservations and even lamentations about the ‘failure’ and even the ‘death’ of multiculturalism have been increasingly heard even from moderately conservative European political leaders.

We need, however, to understand that the word might refer to at least three different notions: first, the mere existence of plurality or diversity (‘multiculturality’); second, the model of multiculturalism which promotes tolerance among separate communities within plural societies (sometimes referred to as ‘plural monoculturalism’[8]); and third, pluralism as an active process of constructive engagement between different communities (sometimes called ‘interculturalism’).

The phrase ‘passive tolerance’ has also been used to express disapproval of the failure to ‘integrate’ non-intersecting ‘minority’ communities into wider society and to promote ‘social cohesion’ through a common narrative or set of agreed national values. Furthermore, according to this view, passive tolerance which turns a blind eye to ‘extremist ideology’ and the ‘radicalisation’ it promotes should not just be disapproved of but actively countered.   In other words, there should be ‘intolerance of intolerance’.

Many might legitimately argue that national solidarity, social cohesion, and the building of a shared narrative are not facilitated by passive tolerance of isolated, non-intersecting enclaves within society.  It is nevertheless profoundly misleading to appear to suggest that multiculturalism in its critically important sense of active intercultural engagement is dead.  Lack of care in distinguishing such concepts can have profoundly negative consequences not only for minority communities but also for wider society.  After all, Anders Breivik, the Norwegian ideologue who killed 69 people in a mass shooting on the island of Utoya in 2011, was motivated by hatred of the multiculturalism which he saw as an assault on racial and cultural purity and which raised for him the hideous spectre of the ‘Islamification’ of Europe.

The sought-after balance (and potential tension) between unity and diversity is encapsulated in the titles of two books by the philosopher and theologian Jonathan Sacks. In The Home We Build Together (2009), he added his voice to the critique of disconnected communities and argued for the need for Britain to construct a national narrative as a basis for identity, reinvigorate the concept of the common good, identify shared interests among conflicting groups, and restore a culture of ‘civility’.[9] Significantly, this book followed on five years after his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations[10]  in which he argued that we need to do more than search for common human values.  We must, he asserted, also learn to make space for difference, even (and especially) at the heart of the monotheistic vision.  Earlier doctrines of ‘toleration’ would be inadequate for the global future of co-existence and cooperation, which would require a new paradigm of unity in diversity.

Tolerance is often included in lists of typically ‘Western’ values.  The British government, for example, announced in June, 2014, its intention to actively promote ‘British values’ in schools, and the Department of Education defined these ‘fundamental’ values as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.[11]  Religious tolerance is also enshrined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which guarantees religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, for all Americans of whatever faith or none.  A majority may not impose its religious values on others, nor limit minority religious rights.  The fact that a majority of Americans do not share the beliefs of a minority faith does not make those beliefs and practices any less protected, nor a disqualification from total equality of opportunity.

The principle of liberty of conscience is discussed in a report published in 2012 by the Cambridge University Centre of Islamic Studies:

‘There is a web of misunderstanding, not confined to Muslims, regarding the true origin, nature, and intent of secularism.  The core of the idea of the secular state is not anti-religious, for the historical separation of the powers of church and state in the West actually guaranteed the status of religion and the freedom of the church from state control, ensuring that neither should interfere in each other’s domain of government.  Secularism is therefore essentially a contract, ensuring religious freedom, tolerance, and peace within a shared political space.  An important aspect of the separation of powers is the fundamental principle of liberty of conscience, a principle ardently advocated by Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, in 1523.  Insisting that God requires voluntary and sincere religious beliefs, Luther set out the principle that forbids human authorities from compulsion or coercion in matters of faith, since any such compulsion would render faith insincere.  The role of the civil government is simply to maintain peace and order in society.'[12]

Toleration is also central to the political philosophy of John Locke.  In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689),[13] unlike Thomas Hobbes, who saw uniformity of religion as the foundation of an orderly and properly functioning civil society, Locke argued that one of the causes of civil unrest was the hostility, strife, and confrontation fomented by religious intolerance, including attempts to prevent different religions from being practised, rather than tolerating their proliferation.  Locke’s primary aim was to ‘distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion’, clarifying their separate institutional functions, the former to promote external interests relating to life, liberty, and the general welfare, and the latter to promote the internal matter of personal salvation.

The principle of liberty of conscience is absolutely in accord with the Qur’anic injunction that there shall be no coercion (ikrah) in matters of faith.[14]  In his commentary on this verse, Muhammad Asad notes that, ‘On the strength of this categorical prohibition, all Islamic jurists (fuqaha), without any exception, hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void, and that any attempt at coercing a non-believer to accept the faith of Islam is a grievous sin: a verdict which disposes of the widespread fallacy that Islam places before the unbelievers the alternative of “conversion or the sword”.’  The timely publication in 2013 of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World[15] has also brought to light not only those pluralistic Qur’anic principles that forbid coercion and promote tolerance, but also the Prophet Muhammad’s command to Muslims to actively protect Christian communities and their places of worship ‘until the End of the World’.

The etymology of the word tolerance helps us to understand why, despite its inclusion in the canon of broadly ‘Western’ values, it can still carry a relatively negative connotation.  The word comes from the Indo-European base tel-, tal- or tol-, ‘lift, support, weigh’, which produced Latin tolerare, ‘bear’, endure’, a meaning shared in Greek and Germanic cognates.  The sense of being tested to the limit of endurance, even to a degree that seems intolerable and unbearable, is embodied in another derivation from the same root, that of Tantalus in Greek mythology.  This son of Zeus was condemned to be forever ‘tantalized’ by standing up to his neck in water which receded whenever he bent to drink, and under fruit trees whose fruit always eluded him, their branches swaying from his reach.  The same root is apparent in Atlas, a Titan, who, as a punishment for rebelling against the gods, was forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders.

Omid Safi reminds us of the problematic connotations of tolerance, pointing out that in medieval toxicology and pharmacology it marked ‘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?’.  He protests that he does not want merely to tolerate his 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’.[16]

It is important to realize here that both the words relate (‘carry back’) and translate (‘carry across’) are also derived from the same root that produced tolerate.  This etymology is a reminder of the need to go beyond the unchallenging mediocrity of a brand of tolerance that merely endures the ‘others’ but is not open to genuine relationship with them.  Diana Eck, Director of the Harvard Pluralism Project, also points out that 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’.  As she passionately argues, pluralism is a ‘truth-seeking encounter’, a process of active engagement that goes well beyond the passive acknowledgment or tolerance of the mere existence of plurality or ‘cosmopolitanism’, or even the ‘celebration of diversity’ as the cliché goes.  Such tolerance, devoid of relationship, curiosity, imagination, or empathy, ‘does not require us to know anything new; it does not even entertain the fact that we might change in the process’.[17]

In discussing religious pluralism, Rowan Williams does not shy away from the ‘inevitable tension, conversation, disagreement, and negotiation’ to pursue among ‘the family of the children of Abraham’, believing that we should always ‘be suspicious of the idea that our differ­ences can somehow be elided into a bland and unspecific unity’ which flattens out all differences or which leads to ‘compromise or indifferen­tism’. Rather, he affirms that through the process of acknowledging the particularity of each faith we are all driven to ‘better self-­understanding, to a self­-questioning that takes us deeper’.[18]

In advising us that we have been made into nations and tribes so that we may come to know one another,[19] the Qur’an itself implies that we must reach beyond mere tolerance and engage in active and open-heartened dialogue with other cultures.  This is the process of seeing the self in the other, which Rumi describes in one of his discourses as integral to the attainment of wisdom.  The rejection of passive tolerance can never merely be synonymous with intolerance of intolerance but must include the higher ambition of active intercultural engagement for the advancement of human knowledge and virtue.

The Qur’an also advises us that the diversity of our tongues and colours are signs for people of insight,[20] and that ‘had thy Sustainer so willed, He could surely have made all mankind one single community: but [He willed it otherwise, and so] they continue to hold divergent views.’[21]  The pluralistic dimension of ta’aruf, learning from one another, is absolutely germane to the Qur’anic perspective.  The Prophet Muhammad is also reported to have said, ‘The diversity of my people is a blessing’ (ikhtilaf ummati rahmah).  Homogeneity is a recipe for sterility, whereas diversity raises the intelligence and virtue of groups.  It does so because each community can act as a role model for particular skills and human virtues for others to emulate, and this is a reciprocal process; it works both ways.  It is through such reciprocal engagement that the core values upheld by one nation, society, or community can be tested and held to account.[22]  To that end, the Qur’an commands that we ‘Vie with one another in doing good works!’[23]  Muhammad Asad notes other verses which uphold that, in his words, ‘the unceasing differentiation in men’s views and ideas is not incidental but represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence’.  In short, 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 and improve oneself through relationship with others, and to be rivals in doing good.

Khalid Abou El-Fadl makes the important point that the Qur’an does not provide ‘specific rules or instruction about how diverse peoples and nations are to go about knowing each other’, nor did the classical commentators ‘fully explore the implications of the sanctioning of diversity or the role of peaceful conflict resolution’. As a result, ‘the existence of diversity as a primary purpose of creation remains underdeveloped in Islamic theology.  Pre-modern Muslim scholars did not have a strong incentive to explore the meaning and implication of the Qur’anic endorsement of diversity and cross-cultural intercourse.  This is partly because of the political dominance and superiority of the Islamic civilisation, which left Muslim scholars with a sense of self-sufficient confidence’.  His ensuing conclusion provides vital advice:  ‘Working out the implications of a commitment to human diversity and mutual knowledge under contemporary conditions requires moral reflection and attention to historical circumstance – precisely what is missing from puritan theology and doctrine’.[24]

To this timely warning could be added the wider perspective that  sees the need for all ‘nations and tribes’, all cultures and civilisations, to embrace the commitment to the realizations of the tel- root which are preserved in the sense of ‘relationship’ and ‘translation’.  Only in this way can we move beyond isolation, solipsism, and xenophobia towards the integration of knowledge and the meeting of hearts.

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) used the term ‘asabiyyah (tribal partisanship; ethnocentricism) in both positive and negative senses.  Positive or balanced ‘asabiyyah is a source of solidarity and social cohesion.  It recognises that co-operation and community spirit are hard wired into humanity, and social organisation and community pride are necessary for an internally coherent civilisation to flourish.  It also recognizes that the validity of one’s own understanding and practice of universal values does not justify looking down on other ways in which such values may be realized in other communities.

This is distinct from the negative form of ‘asabiyyah, that crudely jingoistic and smugly ethnocentric mentality that endorses tribal prejudice and parochial self-interest.   The Prophet’s reaction to boasts of ancestral glory was to warn those steeped in the arrogance of pre-Islamic pagan ignorance (jahiliyyah) that Islam had abolished such tribalism, and that all human beings are descended from Adam.  The Qur’an advises us that there is no superiority of one over another except in taqwa, which is the consciousness and loving awe of God that inspires us to be vigilant and to do what is right.[25]  This verse is an implicit condemnation of all ethnic, racial, national, class, or tribal prejudice, a condemnation which is made explicit by the Prophet Muhammad in his reported assertion that He is not of us who proclaims the cause of tribal partisanship, and he is not of us who fights in the cause of tribal partisanship, and he is not of us who dies in the cause of tribal partisanship.  When asked to explain what he meant by tribal partisanship, the Prophet answered, It means helping your own people in an unjust cause.[26]

Disapproval of tribalism is evident in the Pact of the Virtuous (hilf al-fudul), struck when Muhammad was a young man, and not yet a Prophet.  In this pact, tribal leaders and members pledged that it was their collective duty to intervene in conflicts in the cause of justice and side with the oppressed against the oppressors, whoever they might be and whatever alliances might link them to other tribes.  The Prophet’s approval of the pact, in which he saw nothing that contradicted the values of Islam, confirmed that principles of justice, morality, and the common good of society are not the exclusive domain of any one community, faith or ideology.  This is a profoundly important lesson in the face of the ingrained human penchant for exclusivism and narrow identity politics, which rings out so repetitively in the vocal misappropriation of doctrines and values and the one-sided exploitation of terminology for cultural, ethnic, religious, national, or civilizational triumphalism and hegemony.

Most of us will doubtless know some version of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis (11:1-9) 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.[27]

Some of us, too, may be familiar with at least one of the many depictions of the building of the Tower of Babel in Western art, of which the two surviving oil paintings (c. 1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder are perhaps the best known.  Bruegel’s depiction of the Tower is deliberately modelled on the Roman Colosseum as a symbol of overweening pride and arrogant self-confidence (Rome as the ‘eternal city’ built to last forever).  According to the Biblical account, the Tower of Babel was erected by the descendants of Noah (Nuh) led by Nimrod, King of Shinar, in a presumptuous attempt to reach up to heaven.  As a punishment for their hubris, God confounded them by making the builders unable to understand each other’s speech; hence, according to legend, the ‘confusion of tongues’ – the fragmentation of human speech into the various languages of the world – and the scattering of mankind over the face of the earth.

The Qur’an, however, does not support the idea that the diversity of languages and races is a punishment for presumption and vainglory, or an intolerable burden placed on mankind, a fall from monolithic identity and monolingual and monocultural purity and cohesion.  On the contrary, it divinely ordains unity in diversity, not only in terms of culture, language, and race, but also in religion.  As Mahmoud Ayoub explains, ‘Humanity began as one and must remain one, but it is unity in diversity.  This diversity, moreover, is not due to the gradual degeneration of human society from an ideal or utopian state.  Nor is it the result of a lack of divine guidance or human understanding.  Rather, religious diversity is a normal human situation.  It is the consequence of the diversity of human cultures, languages, races, and different environments’.[28]  In his Introduction to Rabbi Jonathan Magonet’s Talking to the Other: Jewish Interfaith Dialogue with Christians and Muslims, Prince Hasan bin Talal of Jordan quotes Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s affirmation of the creativity inherent in human diversity: ‘Revelation is always an accommodation to the capacity of man.  No two minds are alike, just as no two faces are alike.  The voice of God reaches the spirit of man in a variety of ways, in a multiplicity of languages.  One truth comes to expression in many ways of understanding’.[29]

In his discussion of ‘Adam to Confusio Linguarum‘, Umberto Eco refers to Jürgen Trabant’s view of the story of the Tower of Babel: ‘This story is a gesture of propaganda, in so far as it provided a particular explanation of the origin and variety of languages, by presenting it only as a punishment and a curse.  Since the variety of tongues renders a universal communication among men, to say the least, difficult, it was certainly a punishment.  However, it also meant an improvement of the original creative powers of Adam, a proliferation of that force which allowed the production of names by virtue of divine inspiration’.[30]

In relation to those ‘original creative powers of Adam’ we might usefully return to the root (ar-) of the word harmony, for it should not escape our notice that it is also the source of the word articulate, which not only has the sense of ‘jointed’ or having distinct parts, but also means to ‘pronounce clearly and distinctly’ and to ‘speak fluently and coherently’.

The Qur’an relates how God ‘imparted to Adam the names of all things'[31]. Commenting on this verse, Muhammad Asad notes that the Arabic word for ‘name’ (ism) implies, according to all philologists, an expression ‘conveying the knowledge of a thing’ and denoting ‘a substance, accident, or attribute, for the purpose of distinction’ [32] – or, as Asad explains, ‘in philosophical terminology, a concept.’  He adds that ‘from this it may legitimately be inferred that the knowledge of all the names denotes here man’s faculty of logical definition and, thus, of conceptual thinking.’ One might add that this faculty is also denoted on one level by the term ‘aql (‘reason, intellect’), whose root meaning 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 faculty of judgment, discrimination, and clarification depends on the intellectual power of speech (nutq), which enables man, the ‘language animal’, to articulate words in meaningful patterns.  Indeed, by virtue of his ability to think conceptually through the medium of ‘the letter’, man is superior in this respect even to the angels, who possess only the knowledge imparted directly to them by God, and who are commanded by God to prostrate before Adam in recognition of his appointment as khalifah, the one who shall ‘inherit the earth’.

There is another, deeply moral implication of the teaching of the ‘names’ to Adam.  The ‘names’ are not simply precision tools for logical thinking, for making fine distinctions.  From a metaphysical Islamic perspective, letters and words are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation.  It is therefore a sacred trust to use words that are fair, fitting, balanced, equitable, and just, words that are ‘in due measure and proportion’.  Proportionality in Islam is a defining marker of human character and spirituality, which in its primordial condition is in a state of balance and equilibrium.

The Qur’an also likens the ‘good word’ to ‘a blessed tree, firmly rooted, reaching out with its branches towards the sky’.[33]  Words can ‘invite to all that is good, enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong'[34], and in one’s relationships with people of different faiths one should speak to them ‘in the finest manner’, arguing ‘in ways that are best and most gracious’.[35]  In this conception of language, the letter is not an inanimate component of an abstract concept, but is a living entity, and the words that are formed from these letters and their accumulation in spoken and written texts have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity.  The word is in fact a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing and acting.  The expression ‘in word and deed’ encapsulates this wisdom, this convergence between speech and action.  Fine speech is responsible social action in the service of humanity, an obligation for the fully human being in his or her capacity as khalifah.

An illuminating parallel can be discovered in the Proportioned Script, the Arabic writing system attributed to the Abbasid wazir (minister) Ibn Muqla and the master scribe Ibn al-Bawwab that has dominated the art of Arabic and Islamic penmanship from the 10th century to the present day.  As Ahmed Moustafa and Stefan Sperl have shown in their monumental study, the Proportioned Script is derived from a unifying geometric grid which governs the execution of all 28 Arabic letter shapes.[36] In the same way, we might envisage a unifying geometry of concepts as underpinning the most fitting use of words in any language.  And this is a matter of ‘justice’ in its deepest sense, a principle in which aesthetic, moral, and spiritual strands of meaning are intertwined.  The beauty and harmony of the Proportioned Script should not be associated with the merely decorative or ornamental qualities of a beautiful style of handwriting.  The geometry of letters is more, too, than just a functional writing system, no matter how ornamental, comprising a series of alphabetic signs denoting phonemes and numerals.  Contained within it is an entire statement about the visual representation of meaning and the relationship between man, word, world, and cosmos.  The letter-shapes are cosmic symbols or macrocosmic archetypes that stand at the threshold between the seen and the Unseen.  As such, they mirror the integrity and justice of the cosmic order and assume a visual form compatible with Divine Revelation, an optimal expression in aesthetic terms of the Word of God as enshrined in the Holy Qur’an.[37]

Further etymological excavation reveals that the ar- root is not only the source of Greek harmonia but also produced the Greek word areté, which is usually translated as ‘virtue’ although it is not a specifically moral term.[38]  It was used to refer not only to human skills but also to inanimate objects, natural substances, and domestic animals.  A good knife had the virtue (areté) of being able to cut well ‘by virtue of’ its sharpness.  The term denoted any sort of excellence, distinctive power, capacity, skill, or merit, rather like Latin virtus, which, like the Greek, also had the sense of bravery and strength.  The Italian word virtuoso preserves the sense of exceptional skill.  The connotation of excellence in the word areté also comes through in the related word aristos (‘fittest, best’) and aristokratia, ‘rule by the best people’.  Such an ideal need not be equated with its debased realization in the form of government in which power is held by a hereditary ruling class of aristocrats or other privileged ‘elite’ rather than by people of real merit or, indeed, by people elected or formally chosen in line with the original meaning of the word elite from Latin electus, ‘chosen’.

Useful convergence can be found here with Confucian ethics, in which the most frequently discussed ideal is that of the junzi (or chun-tzu).  David Wong explains that the Chinese word originally meant ‘son of a prince’, a member of the aristocracy, ‘but in the Analects of Confucius it refers to ethical nobility’.  The first English translations rendered the term as ‘gentleman’, but the more appropriate terms ‘superior man’ or ‘exemplary person’ have been suggested in more recent times.  Wong also notes that ‘before Confucius’s time, the concept of ren referred to the aristocracy of bloodlines, meaning something like the strong and handsome appearance of an aristocrat.  But in the Analects the concept is of a moral excellence that anyone has the potential to achieve’.  He adds that the sense of ren as ‘all-encompassing moral virtue’ is explicitly conveyed by some translators through use of the translation ‘Good’ or ‘Goodness’, although it is also commonly translated as ‘benevolence’ or ‘humaneness’.[39]

Homer often associates areté with courage, but more often with effectiveness. The person of areté uses all his or her faculties to achieve their objectives, often in the face of difficult circumstances, hardship, or danger.  One heroic model is Odysseus, not only brave and eloquent, but also wily, shrewd. and resourceful, with the practical intelligence and wit (in the sense of quick thinking) of the astute tactician able to use a cunning ruse to win the day.[40]  The Latin word virtus comes from vir, ‘man’ (source of virility or manliness), itself originally from the Indo-European base wi-ro, ‘man’.  Homer uses the word areté, however, to describe not only male Greek and Trojan heroes but also female figures, such as Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who embodies areté by showing how misfortune and sorrow can be stoically endured to an excellent degree.  Such is the virtue of sabr (patient endurance) in Islamic tradition.  In the same way, the aesthetic sense of refinement associated by the Greeks with areté converges at one level with that of ihsan, ‘doing what is good and beautiful’, behaving in an excellent manner.  In Islamic ethics and spirituality, ihsan embraces the aesthetic, moral and spiritual dimensions of a beautiful and virtuous character (akhlaq and adab).  In the same way, the concept of ‘beauty’ expressed by the word husn transcends what is merely decorative in appearance and encompasses not only the aesthetic sense of beauty in its homage to the ‘due measure and proportion’ with which all of creation is endowed by the Creator, but also the intimate equation between what is beautiful and what is good.  Beauty is thus inseparable from the attributes of Divine Perfection, and from the goodness, moral virtue, spiritual refinement, and excellence of character that are the human reflections of those holy attributes.  This integrated and elevated conception of beauty is fundamental to a proper understanding of what is meant by excellence in the domain of aesthetics.

In the original Greek of the New Testament, areté is included in the list of virtues for cultivation in Christian moral development, and is associated primarily with the moral excellence of Jesus.  It figures in the celebrated ‘Admonition of Paul’: ‘Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (areté), if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things’.[41]

Our exploration of the semantics of the Indo-European root of Armonia has brought to light a rich constellation of related concepts that can be marshalled in articulating and embodying a humane vision of active pluralism in the contemporary world.  If we fit together or articulate these concepts in the spirit of harmony, we enter a spacious landscape of meaning that encompasses qualities at once aesthetic, expressive, and relational, and imbued with moral compass.  The roots of harmony tell us that our dealings with the totality of the created order, including all humankind, should be rooted in what is fitting and decent, in full accord with the merit and dignity accorded to the human being as khalifah created ‘in the image of God’. This stewardship endows us with the responsibility, demanding as it is, to strive for excellence in the fullest sense of doing what is both good and beautiful, speaking the ‘good word’ in the finest manner, and honouring the transcendent unity at the heart of multiplicity by reaching out and entering into active relationship with the ‘other’ as a truth-seeking encounter in our plural world.  The outcome of this sacred endeavour is not a fractured world in which nothing fits together, or in which isolated encampments of separate ‘identities’ never intersect, but one in which the unique value of every one of a dazzling array of perspectives is integrated into a congruent and coherent whole.

There is a story from a classic of Islamic spirituality[42] about four quarrelling travellers.  It goes like this:

Four travellers – a Persian, a Turk, an Arab, and a Greek –were quarrelling about how best to spend a single coin, the only piece of money they had between them.

        ‘I want to buy angur’, said the Persian.

        ‘I prefer üzüm’, said the Turk.

        ‘I want inab’, said the Arab.

        ‘No!’ said the Greek, ‘it is estafil that we should buy’.

At that moment another traveller passed by and said: ‘If you give me the coin, I will do my best to satisfy the desires of all of you’.  At first they were suspicious of him, believing that he intended to take the coin for himself, but eventually they decided to entrust it to him.  He went to a fruit seller’s shop and bought four bunches of grapes.

        ‘This is angur’, said the Persian.

        ‘But this is what I call üzüm’, said the Turk.

        ‘Thank you for bringing me inab’, said the Arab.

        ‘This is none other than my estafil’, said the Greek.

The grapes were shared out amongst them, and it dawned on each of them that the disharmony among them was simply due to his ignorance of the language of the others.

Everybody is in a state of yearning, because there is an inner need existing in all of us to remember our original state of unity, but we give it different names and have different ideas of what it may be.  The traveller–linguist in the story represents the sage, the man or woman of spiritual insight, the one who is able to show the other travellers that what they all yearn for is actually the same thing, even though their word for it is different.  Such a person is also the harmoniser and peacemaker, who is able to resolve the misunderstanding and strife that was developing among the travellers and fulfill all their needs with a single coin.  The single coin is, of course, the Divine Unity or Oneness of Being (tawhid), which is the source and ground of all diversity.

[1] In explaining the origin of English words, including their Indo-European roots, I have consulted various sources, including John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 1990); Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, ed. Robert K. Barnhart (Chambers, Edinburgh,1988);  Joseph T. Shipley,  The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (John Hopkins University Press, 1984); and The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European  Roots, ed. Calvert Watkins (Houghton Mifflin Company,  Boston, 2000).

[2] Qur’an 82:7

[3] Qur’an 54:49

[4] Muhammad Asad’s translation of fi ahsani taqwim in Qur’an 95:4. All quotations from Muhammad Asad in this essay are from The Message of the Qur’an (The Book Foundation, Bath, 2004; first edition Dar Al Andalus, Gibraltar, 1980).  This work is now also available as an iPad application.

[5] Yusuf Ali’s translation of fi ahsani taqwim.  See previous note.

[6] See Fred Halliday, ‘The “Clash of Civilisations”?: Sense and Nonsense’ in Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, ed. Roger Boase, op. cit., 129. On the Clash of Civilisations, see Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs 72: 3 (1993), 22-49, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996).

[7] See e.g. Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest  (Allen Lane, London, 2011) and the reviews of this book by Bernard Porter, The Guardian, 25 March 2011 at (accessed 21/12/16) and by Ricardo Duchesne at (accessed 21/12/16).

[8] On plural monoculturalism, see Amartya Sen, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism: Chili and Liberty.’ The New Republic, 27/2/2006.  For a summary of Sen’s critique, see

[9] Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (Continuum, London, 2009).

[10] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (Continuum, London, 2004).

[11] ‘Children should learn British values such as freedom and tolerance, says David Cameron’, Daily Telegraph, 10 June, 2014. See

[12] Contextualising Islam in Britain II  (Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, in association with the universities of Exeter and Westminster, 2012), 93.  Martin Luther’s On Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed (1523) can be accessed online at

[13] John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) can be accessed online at

[14] Qur’an 2:256

[15] John Andrew Morrow, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Sophia Perennis, 2013).

[16] Omid Safi (ed.), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism (Oneworld, Oxford, 2003), 24.

[17] Diana Eck, Encountering God (Beacon Press, Boston, 1993), 192, 198.  The quotations from Diana Eck were included in my paper ‘The Challenge of Pluralism and the Middle Way of Islam’ in Islam and Global Dialogue, Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, ed. Roger Boase (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005), 267-272.  This elaborated and updated material from my opening Plenary Address and Concluding Remarks at the AMSS Third Annual Conference Unity and Diversity: Islam, Muslims and the Challenge of Pluralism, held at the Diplomatic Academy, Westminster University, London, 20-21 October, 2001.

[18] Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, Introduction to Islam, Christianity and Pluralism by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1st Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture, published jointly by Lambeth Palace and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (Richmond, 2007).

[19] Qur’an 49:13

“British and Muslim: Holding Values to Account through Reciprocal Engagement”, Arches Quarterly, Spring, 2011, 30-43.

[20] Qur’an 30:22

[21] Qur’an 11:118

[22] See Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, ‘British and Muslim: Holding Values to Account through Reciprocal Engagement’, Arches Quarterly, Spring, 2011, 30-43.

[23] Qur’an 5:48

[24] Khalid Abou El-Fadl, The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Beacon Press, Boston, 2002).

[25] Qur’an 49:13

[26] Muhammad Asad, note to Qur’an 28:15 in The Message of the Qur’an, op. cit.

[27] The following discussion of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is based on relevant material in my essay, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, ‘Towards a Language of Integration’, in Rethinking Reform in Higher Education: From Islamization to Integration of Knowledge (The International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, 2017, forthcoming).  I have previously explored these ideas in ‘Beyond the Tower of Babel: A Linguistic Approach to Clarifying Key Concepts in Islamic Pluralism’, in Citizenship, Security and Democracy: Muslim Engagement with the West, ed. Wanda Krause (Association of Muslim Social Scientists, UK, Richmond, 2009).

[28] Mahmoud M. Ayoub, ‘The Qur’an and Religious Pluralism’ in Islam and Global Dialogue, Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, ed. Roger Boase, op. cit., 273.

[29] Jonathan Magonet, Talking to the Other: Jewish Interfaith Dialogue with Christians and Muslims (I.B. Tauris, London, 2003), vii.

[30] ‘Adam to Confusio Linguarum‘ is the title of the first chapter of Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress (Fontana Press, London, 1997). His quotation from Jürgen Trabant is from Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache (Fink, Munich, 1986).

[31] Qur’an 2:31

[32] William Edward Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (London, 1863-1893), IV, 1435.

[33] Qur’an 14:24

[34] Qur’an 3:104

[35] Qur’an 16:125

[36] See Ahmed Moustafa and Stefan Sperl, The Cosmic Script: Sacred Geometry and the Science of Arabic Penmanship (Thames and Hudson, London, 2014).

[37] Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, Epilogue to The Cosmic Script, ibid., 626-659.

[38] On the Greek word areté, see Andrew Lawless, Plato’s Sun: An Introduction to Philosophy (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2005) and Michael Pakaluk, Artistotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 5.

[39] On the concepts of junzi and ren in Confucian ethics, see David Wong, ‘Chinese Ethics’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed at

[40] On Odysseus’s shrewdness, see Jeffrey Barnouw, Odysseus, Hero of Practical Intelligence: Deliberation and Signs in Homer’s Odyssey (University Press of America Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 2004), 250.

[41] Philippians 4:8. On virtues included in the New Testament, see Allen Verhey, The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1984), 141.

[42] Jalaluddin Rumi, Mathnawi, II, 3681 ff. The translation is adapted from Idries Shah, The Sufis (Doubleday, New York, 1964), 21-22.


About the author

Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas is a Research Associate and former Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is Founder and former Executive Director of the Book Foundation, a registered UK charity which works with partner institutions in the UK, Europe, and the USA to improve understanding of Islam in the West, and whose mission includes the dissemination of The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad.  He was the first Chair of the UK Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR), is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS UK), an Associate Editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim, and a contributing editor of the online resource The American Muslim. He speaks and writes widely on the themes of education, society, and spirituality, having written regular columns over the years for Islamica and emel magazines, and for the Credo column in The Times.

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Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas is a Research Associate and former Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is Founder and former Executive Director of the Book Foundation, a registered UK charity which works with partner institutions in the UK, Europe, and the USA to improve understanding of Islam in the West, and whose mission includes the dissemination of The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad.  He was the first Chair of the UK Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR), is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS UK), an Associate Editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim, and a contributing editor of the online resource The American Muslim. He speaks and writes widely on the themes of education, society, and spirituality, having written regular columns over the years for Islamica and emel magazines, and for the Credo column in The Times.

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