What is tolerance? Literally the word “tolerance” means “to bear.” As a concept it means “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of the world’s cultures, forms of expression and ways of being human.” Thus it means to hold something acceptable or bearable.
Tolerance is the appreciation of diversity and the ability to live and let others live. It is the ability to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, religion, nationality and so on differ from one’s own. As William Ury notes, “tolerance is not just agreeing with one another or remaining indifferent in the face of injustice, but rather showing respect for the essential humanity in every person.”
AN ABRIDGED VERSION OF PICKTHALL’S LECTURE:
In the eyes of history, religious toleration is the highest evidence of culture in a people. It was not until the Western nations broke away from their religious law that they became more tolerant, and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of the highest culture. Before the coming of Islam, tolerance had never been preached as an essential part of religion.
If Europe had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom, in those days, those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension.
Innumerable monasteries, with a wealth of treasure of which the worth has been calculated at not less than a hundred millions sterling, enjoyed the benefit of the Holy Prophet’s (Muhammad’s) Charter to the monks of Sinai and were religiously respected by the Muslims. The various sects of Christians were represented in the Council of the Empire by their patriarchs, on the provincial and district council by their bishops, in the village council by their priests, whose word was always taken without question on things which were the sole concern of their community.
The tolerance within the body of Islam was, and is, something without parallel in history; class and race and color ceasing altogether to be barriers.
One of the commonest charges brought against Islam historically, and as a religion, by Western writers is that it is intolerant. This is turning the tables with a vengeance when one remembers various facts: One remembers that not a Muslim is left alive in Spain or Sicily or Apulia. One remembers that not a Muslim was left alive and not a mosque left standing in Greece after the great rebellion in l821. One remembers how the Muslims of the Balkan peninsula, once the majority, have been systematically reduced with the approval of the whole of Europe, how the Christian under Muslim rule have in recent times been urged on to rebel and massacre the Muslims, and how reprisals by the latter have been condemned as quite uncalled for.
Under the Umayyads and in Baghdad under the Abbasid Khalifas, Christians and Jews, equally with Muslims, were admitted to the Schools and universities – not only that, but were boarded and lodged in hostels at the cost of the state. When the Moors were driven out of Spain, the Christian conquerors held a terrific persecution of the Jews. Those who were fortunate enough to escape fled, some of them to Morocco and many hundreds to the Turkish empire, where their descendants still live in separate communities, and still speak among themselves an antiquated form of Spanish. The Muslim empire was a refuge for all those who fled from persecution by the Inquisition.
THE WESTERN CHRISTIANS
Till the arrival of the Encyclopaedists in the eighteenth century, did not know and did not care to know, what the Muslim believed, nor did the Western Christian seek to know the views of Eastern Christians with regard to them. The Christian Church was already split in two, and in the end, it came to such a pass that the Eastern Christians, as Gibbon shows, preferred Muslim rule, which allowed them to practice their own form of religion and adhere to their peculiar dogmas, to the rule of fellow Christians who would have made them Roman Catholics or wiped them out.
THE WESTERN CHRISTIANS CALLED THE MUSLIMS PAGANS
Paynims,even idolaters – there are plenty of books in which they are described as worshiping an idol called Mahomet or Mahound, and in the accounts of the conquest of Granada there are even descriptions of the monstrous idols which they were alleged to worship – whereas the Muslims knew what Christianity was, and in what respects it differed from Islam. If Europe had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom, in those days, those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension. i quote a learned french author:
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“Every poet in Christendom considered a Mohammedan to be an infidel, and an idolater, and his gods to be three; mentioned in order, they were: Mahomet or Mahound or Mohammad, Opolane and the third Termogond. It was said that when in Spain the Christians overpowered the Mohammadans and drove them as far as the gates of the city of Saragossa, the Mohammadans went back and broke their idols.
“A Christian poet of the period says that Opolane the “god” of the Mohammadans, which was kept there in a den was awfully belabored and abused by the Mohammadans, who, binding it hand and foot, crucified it on a pillar, trampled it under their feet and broke it to pieces by beating it with sticks; that their second god Mahound they threw in a pit and caused to be torn to pieces by pigs and dogs, and that never were gods so ignominiously treated; but that afterwards the Mohammadans repented of their sins, and once more reinstated their gods for the accustomed worship, and that when the Emperor Charles entered the city of Saragossa he had every mosque in the city searched and had “Muhammad” and all their Gods broken with iron hammers.”
That was the kind of “history” on which the populace in Western Europe used to be fed. Those were the ideas which inspired the rank and file of the crusader in their attacks on the most civilized peoples of those days. Christendom regarded the outside world as damned eternally, and Islam did not. There were good and tender-hearted men in Christendom who thought it sad that any people should be damned eternally, and wished to save them by the only way they knew – conversion to the Christian faith.
It was not until the Western nations broke away from their religious law that they became more tolerant; and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of the highest culture. Therefore the difference evident in that anecdote is not of manners only but of religion. Of old, tolerance had existed here and there in the world, among enlightened individuals; but those individuals had always been against the prevalent religion. Tolerance was regarded of un-religious, if not irreligious. Before the coming of Islam it had never been preached as an essential part of religion.
MUSLIM BACKGROUND BELIEFS
To understand the Muslim view of tolerance we need to understand some basic concepts of the Muslim worldview and sources of authority. The answer to many questions about Islam and its nature is connected with understanding “the very structure of Islam as a religious and political complex.” Although the so called Christian Byzantine Empire and the Western Holy Roman Empire, with the close association of the Christian Church and the State throughout the Middle Ages might suggest a similarity with the Islamic religious-political structure, it is a wrong assumption to consider them identical.  Islam is radically different in that in its very identity is a political-religious structure. Fazlur Rahman, a well respected Muslim scholar writes: “Islam insisted on the assumption of political power since it regarded itself as the repository of the Will of God which had to be worked on earth through a political order … To deny this fact would be both to violate history and to deny justice to Islam itself.”
The concept of God as “Allah” is of a being that is totally other, wholly transcendent to the point of implying that Allah is unknowable in himself but known in his will and requirements revealed in the Qur’an (Sura 42:11; 112:1-4). In the words of a Muslim scholar: “You may not have complete transcendence and self-revelation at the same time.” This view of God is accompanied by a view of humans as the “slaves” of God (Sura 19:93). One major concept in Islam is captured in the very meaning of the word “Islam” itself: namely “submission,” which carries the sense of laying down arms before the victor and is taken to exemplify the total submission of every aspect of life, as an individual and society to Allah (The God).
The Qur’an teaches about itself that it is God’s direct and verbal word, that it is eternal and came down from what is preserved in heaven (Sura 85:22) as the “Mother of the Book” (Sura 3:7; 13:39; 43:4). Although the Qur’an considers the Old and New Testaments as God’s word (Sura 3:93; 4:163; 5:46 etc.), it considers its own authority as greater than theirs (Sura 5:48). Even the Arabic language of the Qur’an is considered an integral part of Allah’s word (Sura 20:113; 12:2), therefore, Muslims consider the Islamic culture as of heavenly origin.
So, Islam is a political, cultural and religious system. Religion, as based primarily on the Qur’an, is a part of the system, which informs all the other aspects of the Islamic system. Religious doctrine, however, is viewed in Islam as a preamble to Islamic law, the Shariah (divine law), which is a comprehensive code governing every aspect of life, because Islam is a religion primarily oriented toward law rather than theology.
Another important Muslim concept is the “Umma,” or “the community of submission.” Although Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had been reciting the earliest Suras of the Qur’an starting in A.D. 610 for about 13 years, it is A.D. 622 that marks the beginning of the Muslim era, because this marks the emergence of the “Umma,” the establishment of the Muslim political- religious structure. Dr. W. Bonar Sidjabat writes: “… the Islam of the Qur’an is theocratic and the Muslim state was a theocracy from its first ascent to power.”
Prior to A.D. 622, Muhammad had not attracted many with his monotheistic message. The people of Mecca, the city of Muhammad’s birth and his first decade of religious activity (which started when he was 40 years old), were not responding positively to Muhammad’s message. They eventually made life so miserable for Muhammad and his few followers that they decided to flee to Medina, another city three hundred miles to the north, where some people had invited Muhammad to mediate differences between various tribal groups. William J. Saal writes:
That well-known event, the Hijra [emigration to Medina], gave Muhammed opportunity to gain control of Medina and eventually extend that control to the entire Arabian Peninsula and beyond.
This event is the pivotal event of Islamic history and has become the starting point of the Muslim calendar. Muslims believe that God’s ultimate objective was the creation of a new universal social order. The Hijra marks the beginning of this new world order, today identified with the Nation or Community of Islam, the Ummah.
There are many issues that require further development at this point in tracing the history of Islam; the looting of Meccan caravans and subsequent battles with Meccan protectors of the caravans (Sura 2:216-218) in A.D. 624; the conquering of Mecca in A.D. 630; massacres of Jews; and military campaigns against the Christians in the north of Arabia under the leadership of Muhammad. He died in A.D. 632 “… but not without ordering about a month before his death another expedition to the North.” We should turn to our main question now and will pursue history only in relation to defining the Qur’anic view of religious tolerance.
THE UNESCO PRINCIPLES ON TOLERANCE SAY
“Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions. It means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behavior and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.”
TOLERANCE AND ISLAM
Tolerance is a basic principle of Islam. It is a religious moral duty. Islam teaches tolerance on all levels: individual, groups and states. Tolerance is the mechanism that upholds human rights and the rule of law. The Qur’an says very clearly:(To every People have We appointed rites and ceremonies which they must follow, let them not then dispute with you on the matter, but do invite (them) to your Lord: for you are assuredly on the Right Way. If they do wrangle with you, say, ‘God knows best what it is you are doing.’ ‘God will judge between you on the Day of Judgment concerning the matters in which you differ’)
The dealings of the Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, with other religions can best be described in the verse of the Quran:
“To you be your religion, to me be mine.” [Al Qur’an 109:6]
The Arabian Peninsula during the time of the Prophet was a region in which various faiths were present. There were Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists, and others not affiliated with any religion. When one looks into the life of the Prophet, one may draw on many examples to portray the high level of tolerance shown to people of other faiths, as is described by God Almighty Himself:
‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.’ [Al Qur’an 49:13]
In order to understand and judge this tolerance, one must look into the period in which Islam was a formal state, with the specific laws laid down by the Prophet in accordance with the tenets of religion. Even though one can observe many examples of tolerance shown by the Prophet in the thirteen years of his stay in Mecca, one may mistakenly think that it was only due to him seeking to raise the profile of the Muslims and their social status. For this reason, the discussion will be limited to the period which commenced with the migration of the Prophet to Medina, and specifically once the constitution was set.
The best example of the tolerance shown by the Prophet to other religions may be the constitution itself, called the ‘Saheefah’ by early historians.When the Prophet migrated to Medina, his role as a mere religious leader ended; he was now the political leader of a state, governed by the precepts of Islam, which demanded that clear laws of governance be laid out to ensure harmony and stability in a society which once had been distraught by decades of war, one which must ensure the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews, Christians and polytheists. Due to this, the Prophet laid down a ‘constitution’ which detailed the responsibilities of all parties which resided in Medina, their obligations towards each other, and certain restrictions which were placed on each. All parties were to obey what was mentioned therein, and any breach of its articles was regarded as an act of treachery.
The first article of the constitution was that all the inhabitants of Medina, the Muslims as well as those who had entered the pact from the Jews, Christian, and polytheists , were “one nation to the exclusion of all others.” All were considered members and citizens of Medina society regardless of religion, race, or ancestry. People of other faiths were protected from harm as much as the Muslims, as is stated in another article, “To the Jews who follow us belong help and equity. He shall not be harmed nor his enemies be aided.” Previously, each tribe had their alliances and enemies within and without Medina. The Prophet gathered these different tribes under one system of governance which upheld pacts of alliances previously in existence between those individual tribes. All tribes had to act as a whole with disregard to individual alliances. Any attack on another religion or tribe was considered an attack on the state and upon the Muslims as well.
The lives of the practitioners of other religions in Muslim society was also given protective status. The Prophet (pbuh) said:
“Whoever kills a person who has a truce with the Muslims will never smell the fragrance of Paradise.” (Sahih Muslim)
Since the upper hand was with the Muslims, the Prophet (pbuh) strictly warned against any maltreatment of people of other faiths. He said:
“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)
To Each Their Own Religion
In another article, it states, “the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.” In this, it is clear that anything other than tolerance would not be tolerated, and that, although all were members of a society, each had their separate religion which could not be violated. Each was allowed to practice their beliefs freely without any hindrances, and no acts of provocation would be tolerated.
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There are many other articles of this constitution which may be discussed, but emphasis will be placed on an article which states, “If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise, it must be referred to God and His Messenger.” This clause maintained that all inhabitants of the state must recognize a higher level of authority, and in those matters which involved various tribes and religions, justice could not be meted out by individual leaders; rather it must be adjudicated by the leader of the state himself or his designated representatives. It was allowed, however, for individual tribes who were not Muslims, to refer to their own religious scriptures and their learned men in regards to their own personal affairs. They could though, if they opted, ask the Prophet to judge between them in their matters. God says in the Quran:
“â€¦If they do come to you, either judge between them or decline to interfereâ€¦” [Al Quran 5:42]
Here we see that the Prophet (pbuh) allowed each religion to judge in their own matters according to their own scriptures, as long as it did not stand in opposition to articles of the constitution, a pact which took into account the greater benefit of the peaceful co-existence of society.
There are many other examples during the lifetime of the Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, in addition to the Saheefah that practically portray the tolerance Islam shows for other peoples and religions.
Freedom of Religious Assembly and Religious Autonomy
Given consent by the constitution, the Jews had the complete freedom to practice their religion. The Jews in Medina at the time of the Prophet had their own school of learning, named Bait-ul-Midras, where they would recite the Torah, worship and educate themselves.
The Prophet (pbuh) emphasised in many letters to his emissaries that religious institutions should not be harmed. Here in a letter addressed to his emissary to the religious leaders of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai who has sought the protection of the Muslims:
“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are declared to be protected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”
As one can see, this Charter consisted of several clauses covering all important aspects of human rights, including such topics as the protection of minorities living under Islamic rule, freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their property, exemption from military service, and the right to protection in war.
On another occasion, the Prophet (pbuh) received a delegation of sixty Christians from the region of Najran, then a part of Yemen, at his mosque. When the time for their prayer came, they faced the direction of east and prayed. The Prophet (pbuh) ordered that they be left in their state and not harmed.
During the life of the Prophet (pbuh), he fully co-operated with people of other faiths in the political arena and selected a non-Muslim, Amr-ibn Umaiyah-ad-Damri, as an ambassador to be sent to Negus, the King of Ethiopia. As today in Article 51 of the UN Charter and in exceptional circumstances Muslims were permitted to defence from attack by the Qur’an, though with a clear criterion of restraint, justice, chivalry and strict warning against trangression. The verse below demonstrates the invioable right and importance of protecting and respecting the Holy sanctury’s of all people.
Permission to fight is given to those who are fighting them, because they
have been wronged, and surely, Allah is Able to give them victory. Those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly only because they said: “Our Lord is Allah.” – For had it not been that Allah checks one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, wherein the Name of God is mentioned much would surely have been pulled down and destroyed. Verily, Allah will help those who help His Cause. Truly, Allah is All-Strong, All-Mighty. [Al Qur’an 22:40]
These are only some of the examples of the Prophet’s tolerance of other faiths. Islam recognizes that there are a plurality of religions on this earth, and gives the right to individuals to choose the path which they believe to be true. Religion is not to be, and was never, forced upon an individual against their own will, and these examples from the life of the Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, are an epitome of the verse of the Quran which promotes religious tolerance and sets the guideline for the Muslims’ interaction with people of other faiths. God says:
“â€¦There is no compulsion in religionâ€¦” [Al Qur’an 2:256]
We pray that people of all faiths and those of no faith can come together and join hands to seek peace, harmony and common cause. Ameen
Tolerance comes from our recognition of:
1. the dignity of the human beings,
2. the basic equality of all human beings,
3. universal human rights, and
4. fundamental freedom of thought, conscience and belief.
The Qur’an speaks about the basic dignity of all human beings. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke about the equality of all human beings, regardless of their race, color, language or ethnic background. Shari`ah recognizes the rights of all people to life, property, family, honor and conscience.
Islam emphasizes the establishment of equality and justice, both of these values cannot be established without some degree of tolerance. Islam recognized from the very beginning the principle of freedom of belief or freedom of religion. It said very clearly that it is not allowed to have any coercion in the matters of faith and belief. The Qur’an says,(There is no compulsion in religion)(Al-Baqarah 2:256).
If in the matters of religion, coercion is not permissible, then by implication one can say that in other matters of cultures and other worldly practices it is also not acceptable. InsuratAsh-Shura Allah says to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him),(If then they turn away, We have not sent you as a guard over them. Your duty is but to convey (the Message)â€¦)(Ash-Shura 42:48). In another place Allah says,(Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. Your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance)(An-Nahl 16:125).
Further, Allah says to the Believers,(Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and beware (of evil): if you do turn back, know then that it is Our Messenger’s duty to proclaim (the Message) in the clearest manner)(Al-Ma’idah 5:92).
One can also cite Allah’s words:(Say: ‘Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger: but if you turn away, he is only responsible for the duty placed on him and you for that placed on you. If you obey him, you shall be on right guidance. The Messenger’s duty is only to preach the clear (Message))(An-Nur 24:54).
All these verses give note that Muslims do not coerce people; they must present the message to them in the most cogent and clear way, invite them to the truth and do their best in presenting and conveying the message of God to humanity, but it is up to people to accept or not to accept. Allah says,(And say, ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whosoever wants let him believe and whosoever wants let him deny’)(An-Nahl 16:29).
The question then comes: If Allah gave choice to believe or not to believe, then why did He punish the people of Prophet Nuh, the `Ad, the Thamud, the people of Prophet Lut, the people of Prophet Shu`ayb and Pharaoh and his followers? The answer is in the Qur’an itself. Those people were not punished simply because of their disbelief. They were punished because they had become oppressors. They committed aggression against the righteous, and stopped others to come to the way of Allah. There were many in the world who denied Allah, but Allah did not punish every one. Ibn Taymiyyah, the outstanding Muslim scholar, said, “The states may live long in spite of their people’s unbelief (kufr), but they cannot live long when their people become oppressors.”
There are many levels of tolerance:
Between family members, between husband and wife, between parents and children, between siblings etc.
Tolerance between the members of the community: tolerance in views and opinions, tolerance between themadhahib(Islamic Juristic Schools).
Tolerance between Muslims and the people of other faiths (interfaith relations, dialogue and cooperation).
Muslims have been generally very tolerant people. We must emphasize this virtue among us and in the world today. Tolerance is needed among our communities: We must foster tolerance through deliberate policies and efforts. Our centers should be multi-ethnic. We should teach our children respect of each other. We should not generalize about other races and cultures. We should have more exchange visits and meetings with each other. Even marriages should be encouraged among Muslims of different ethnic groups.
With non-Muslims we should have dialogue and good relations, but we cannot accept things that are contrary to our religion. We should inform them what is acceptable to us and what is not. With more information, I am sure the respect will develop and more cooperation will develop.
TOLERANCE AND THE VIEW OF TRUTH
What does it mean to tolerate another’s beliefs? To “tolerate” another’s beliefs does not mean that one accepts them as true; but in being tolerant one respects another’s right to free will to choose what to believe. As Newman clarifies, “Tolerating a religious belief, then, does not involve a half-hearted acceptance or endurance of the belief in itself, but rather it involves acceptance or endurance of someone’s holding that belief, that is of a certain case of believing.”
Relativists modify this meaning of tolerance to make it more of a propositional attitude, which involves respecting another’s religious beliefs as being of equal value to all other truth claims, even one’s own convictions. If this line of thought, however, is followed to its logical conclusion, a person could end up holding as equally true both propositions, even if they are obviously contradictory.
Metaphysical relativism considers metaphysical constructs as valuable in that they give significance to our lives; but it is not necessary for them to correspond with something objective outside of our minds. They are basically our own constructs. The motivation for such a conclusion may be epistemological (doubting the possibility to know things as they are in themselves, following the Kantian postulation of the categories of the mind that give shape to reality as experienced by us) or moral (in seeking to accommodate everybody’s view).
When metaphysical relativism is considered as a foundation for tolerance, we end up with no tolerance at all because it deprives the belief of any significance which makes it worth holding. On the other hand, this view also ends up being another dogmatism itself, as Newman writes: “Tolerance, after all, does not demand that one believe that every other person’s metaphysical views are as true or as reasonable or as profound as his own. Indeed … tolerance is possible only because we are capable of putting up with things that we do not like … or agree with.” This condition implies: (1) having a certain belief and (2) being introduced to another person who holds beliefs with which you disagree. If we didn’t have to put up with those who hold beliefs contrary to ours, there would be no need for tolerance. If all believed the same thing, namely, that all religious beliefs are not to be taken seriously, but rather are to be considered merely as different keys in a piano (which may be different but not true or false), than what is there to tolerate?
In conclusion, we can say that tolerance means exemplifying an attitude of respect or endurance toward another’s views, even those one may consider false, and tolerance as such can rightly be a virtue in one who believes in absolute truth. Muslims and Christians (and others who believe in the nature of truth as absolute and objective), have a real opportunity to be tolerant in this sense of the word, while relativists don’t.
THE WILL TO DENY THE OBVIOUS
Nevertheless, even among those who should know better, there is a tendency to behave like the proverbial ostrich, denying the obvious implications of the Qur’anic teaching. Daniel Pipes, who surveyed about 25 experts in religion (professors in Harvard, Georgetown, Duke University, Baylor, Rutgers, University of Wisconsin etc.), found only four
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