This article addresses the question of how to deal with religious diversity from an Islamic perspective. It is divided into five parts. Part one is the introduction. The second part describes three important responses to the phenomenon of religious diversity and is accompanied by a mention of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these approaches. The third part mentions an Islamic approach to the solution of the problem.1 The fourth part mentions three criticisms on that solution and my responses to them. The fifth part concludes the article.
Despite the undeniable contribution of religion to human welfare, it threatens to be seriously divisive, especially if limits of disagreement amongst religious people are not properly respected. Whereas diversity of religious traditions can ideally help people in comparing the relative strengths of the teachings of their respective faiths and in adjusting accordingly, religious bigotry – the tendency to claim truthfulness of one’s own faith and treating all others as worthy of condemnation – leads not only to suffering for many, it also results in drawing many people away from the idea of taking religion seriously. Although in the recent past religious bigotry was beginning to appear less pronounced, many events have led the conscientious people of the world to realize that the monster is very much alive. The bloody civil war in Bosnia, the horrible events of September 11, 2001 and their consequent aftermath, the lingering bloodshed in Israel and Palestine, the unending manifestations of hatred between Hindus and Muslims in India and many other similar unfortunate examples around our misery-stricken world strongly beg all religious groups of the world to urgently attend to the curse of extreme religious bigotry.
II Approaches to deal With the Phenomenon of Religious Diversity
a) The Exclusivist Approach
The most commonly known approach on religious diversity is the one followed by Religious Exclusivists who imagine that they are the sole custodians of religious truth to the complete exclusion of all others. It was the followers of this approach amongst Christians, for instance, who sent an open letter in September 1991 to all Clergy in the Church of England and the Church of Wales claiming that salvation is offered only through Jesus Christ who is the only savior and the only way to God.2 Similar strong Exclusivist views are to be found amongst Muslims and Jews as well. The Qur’ān mentions the Exclusivist approach of the Jews and the Christians of the Arabian society at the time of its revelation thus:
وَقَالُوا لَنْ يَدْخُلَ الْجَنَّةَ إِلَّا مَنْ كَانَ هُودًا أَوْ نَصَارَى (١١١:٢)
They claim: No one shall enter the Paradise except the one who is Jew or Christian. (2:111)
Ironically, the same Exclusivist approach has been adopted by many Muslims who claim that it is only they who shall enter Paradise. They claim that their understanding is based on the Qur’ānic teachings which mention that all Kuffār (plural of Kāfir) will enter Hell. Many Muslims understand that since all non-Muslims are Kāfir, therefore all of them are destined to Hell.3
The basic problem with the Exclusivist approach is that it prevents the believer in a particular religious tradition from conceding that adherents of other traditions can have any possibility of following some version of religious truth to any degree. This leaves hardly any room for imagining that salvation in the afterlife is possible for those who don’t formally believe in the Exclusivist’s faith. The consequent understanding of hopelessness in the religious status of non-believers that naturally results can at times lead to hatred against them which in its worst manifestation expresses itself in the form of violence. Even if an Exclusivist is peaceful and apparently respectful towards people belonging to other faiths, he is not doing so as a consequence of his genuine understanding that the other person deserves it. He only does it as an unavoidable social adjustment or as a part of a cleverly contrived long-term strategy of undoing the other faiths.4 Commitment to the Exclusivist approach by a group of people is a potential dynamite that can explode any time if exploited by a misled religious leader or a political opportunist.
However, it could be mentioned on the positive side of the Exclusivist approach that it enables the believer to have the much needed confidence in the ultimate truth of his belief. Khan has rightly pointed out that the only purpose of religious truth is to provide man with confidence. Man desperately needs confidence of certainty to live in this world. Religious truth provides him with exactly that.5 In case of absence of conviction, a religious belief is reduced to a mere philosophical hypothesis or the final product of a confused collection of a few spiritual experiences.
The critics of this approach fear that this much-applauded attribute of Exclusivists brings along with it the dreaded feeling of negation of other faiths, or else the confidence that the believer is seeking would be unachievable. However, I will show later that this conclusion is not necessarily the only possible result which may proceed from an Exclusivist approach.6
b) The Inclusivist Approach
In an Inclusivist approach, the presenter accepts the right of other faiths to survive side by side with the faith of the Inclusivist, despite not accepting their validity. It allows them reasonable breathing space and the possibility to exist with dignity.
The Vatican, for instance, adopted the policy of Religious Inclusivism through its Decree of 1967 which expressed sentiments of cordiality for other important world religions. Words of sympathy were reserved in the decree even for those who choose to follow the approach of Atheism.7
There are, however, some scholars who believe that Religious Inclusivism despite being a welcome improvement on Religious Exclusivism doesn’t go far enough to address the menace of religious bigotry. They believe that there is a tendency in it to see other faiths as good in so far as they have points in common with Christianity. The Inclusive position remains convinced of its own superiority, even though it recognizes how much it has in common with other faiths and with all people of good will. Inclusivism goes a long way but not far enough.8
Badham’s criticism of Christian Inclusivists is only partly valid. It is not quite fair to claim that the Vatican Decree acknowledges the existence of other faiths only in so far as they have points in common with Christianity. His observation is correct when one views the Decree’s approach towards Muslims and Jews. However, with the magnanimity of the Decree in accommodating Atheists,9 who share nothing with the basic understanding of Christianity, the Vatican has done enough to escape Badham’s criticism.
I disagree with the basic spirit of the Vatican Decree on account of its inconsistency with the Biblical teachings. The New Testament of the Bible states thus:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.10
If the Christians believe this understanding to be correct, they should not expend their energies to unnecessarily vindicate other faiths. After all, if Jesus Christ (sws) is the only saviour for the humans, desperate efforts should be made by Christians to ensure that those who don’t accept that understanding should be made to believe in it. Praising the ‘misleading’ teachings of non-Christian faiths should be seen by committed Christians as an attempt to guide the non-Christians towards destruction. The polite and accommodating tone of the Vatican Decree doesn’t seem to be doing justice with the real spirit of the Biblical text.
c) The Pluralist Approach
According to the Pluralist approach, all important religions are genuine human responses to the same Transcendental Reality, even though influenced by the respective cultural environments of the religious leaders. Thus all of them are simultaneously correct, and all offer important insights into the understanding of the Ultimate.
Religious Pluralism is claimed to be ‘totally open-ended search for truth based on the assumption that all the major religions of humanity have insights to offer, and it must also accept that much of the secular critique of traditional religion is justified and needs to be taken on board also.’11 The Pluralist position rejects both Exclusivism and Inclusivism and calls for genuine Religious Pluralism.
According to an explanation of the rationale of Religious Pluralism, in this religiously ambiguous world both faith and non-faith may be equally valid responses. The issue has to be decided on the basis of the individual’s own experience or non-experience of transcendent reality. The person of faith may feel justified in believing as he does, because that is how they interpret some of their most precious experiences. In the final analysis, all our thinking about the nature of reality is interpreted on the basis of our experiences.12
The Pluralist solution of religious diversity has been rejected by Khan, who maintains that truth can never be plural. If truth is not singular, it is not truth. There isn’t any logical truth in the theory of Religious Pluralism. Even though harmony amongst humans is indeed essential, it cannot be achieved through artificial slogans like ‘I am on the truth, likewise you too’. The only right way of achieving harmony is to consider all people worthy of respect. The right formula leading to religious unity is: ‘Follow one, respect all.’13
Khan, however, doesn’t offer any methodology of inculcating the basic spirit that would inspire that respect. You don’t show respect to others for nothing. If respect is not inspired by a true theoretical clarity, it is bound to be shallow, artificial, and brittle. It is likely to whither away under pressure. Many religious people reject others as not worthy of their respect because they believe that those others reject their perception of religious truth. Something needs to be done to pacify that feeling or else respect for other faiths would remain an unrealizable dream.
Pluralism is not an acceptable approach, because it assumes that all religions are simultaneously correct, which is an obvious absurdity. An individual seeks religion to get definite answers to the problems he is facing. The problems that religion helps in solving can’t be solved through half-certain answers. Uncertain answers to questions like purpose of life, truth about life beyond death, and expectations of our Creator from us are in fact no answers. The suggestion that God has manifested His will to different people in different ways is, at best, confusing. It is in the very nature of the questions that religion seeks to respond that answers to them should be offered in most certain terms. Uncertain answers are as good as no answers. It is the task of religion to inspire confidence in the believer. Failure to do so would push a certainty-seeking religious person into an uncertain territory of philosophy, which may claim to enjoy the luxury of objective reflection, but is devoid of the pleasures of confidence that emerges from religious certainty.
An example would clarify my point. The New Testament of the Bible mentions the claim that Jesus is the son of God.14 The Qur’ān, on the contrary, clearly rejects the possibility that God can have a son.15 The two claims cannot be simultaneously correct. Moreover, these claims do not seem to be influenced by the respective cultural environments of the religious leaders. They are confident, though conflicting, claims about a religious position.
There is no doubt, however, that it is this element of certainty in religion that is the cause of many of its problems as well. Those who believe that what their message is mentioning is the ultimate truth do so to the complete exclusion of any possibility of respect for all other faiths. This gives rise to bigotry amongst believers. In most cases, people belonging to one religious tradition don’t realize that their counterparts in other traditions are equally confident about the certainty of their own version of religion. Badham rightly believes that this understanding is often the result of a complete absence of interaction with people belonging to other faiths.16
The above discussion gives rise to an important question: How could one be certain whether what one is following is the true message of his God? The answer is that an individual would need to be objective in examining the teachings of his faith to inspire within him confidence about its veracity. This objective appraisal would indeed raise questions that would seek answers. The answers would either satisfy the believer to confirm his confidence in his faith still further, or else would weaken it and as a consequence he would be inclined to look for other alternative explanations. This struggle would continue until the seeker of truth would either get relative certainty or else he would continue his journey.
This quest for truth is helped by the preaching efforts of believers of other faiths. An intelligent preacher would not only be conveying his own message to others but would also be objectively receiving message from those others as well. Thus believers of different faiths can enter into meaningful dialogue for mutual benefit. The possibility of such exchanges are severely curtailed by the understanding of Religious Pluralism, which takes away the sense of urgency from the believer who considers the other religious explanations equally valid too.
One might ask whether there is ever a realistic possibility of such exchanges of religious views. Does it really ever happen that way? The answer is in the affirmative. It does happen amongst religious people in many cases. That is what explains the phenomenon of conversions that continue to take place on a regular basis all throughout the world. If one were to accept the explanation of Religious Pluralists, then all the religions of the world would become strictly inward looking in religious matters and would cease to attempt any possibilities of influencing people of other faiths. That would indeed deprive religion and its followers of the vibrant spirit of serving their faith that keeps them motivated. It would be a tragedy to kill that spirit because of the fear that its misuse could cause damage. The fact that aeroplanes do sometimes crash doesn’t lead us to conclude that we should do away with them. What is attempted instead is that more measures are introduced so that the frequency of such accidents could be minimized. Likewise should be our attitude towards exchange of religious views and preaching.
This process also ensures that religious beliefs of people do not remain the end result of the process of brain-washing but should be the outcome of intelligent choice-making. It is this process of preaching and exchanges of religious views that enables the intelligent believer to feel confident that he is not believing in his faith as a consequence of being subjected to the process of one-sided propaganda for his faith and that he is not being negatively brain-washed against other faiths due to his ignorance. He would know, and many religious people do know, that his faith is the end result of a process of exchange and voluntary selection.
The questions that remain unanswered are: i) Is there any one version of true religion? ii) If yes, then are all other versions untrue? iii) Is it always guaranteed that if a person undertakes an earnest effort to know the ultimate truth, he would get it? iv) If that cannot be guaranteed, then what is the purpose of any such version of the ultimate truth? v) Is the individual who despite sincere efforts fails to embrace the correct version of the ultimate truth to be blamed for his failure?
The next section will attempt to answer these questions from an Islamic perspective.
III The Islamic Approach
Muslims have normally been considered Religious Exclusivists, who would not consider people of other faiths worthy of respect for their religious commitments. This author believes that although this view truly reflects the attitude of many – though not necessarily most – Muslims it is not consistent with the correct understanding of the teachings of Islam. The following presentation attempts to show how Islamic teachings propose to tackle the issue of religious plurality.
Islam, on the one hand takes a firm position in claiming that its teachings are the true version of reality from God, on the other hand it also calls for genuine respect for all non-Muslims. Even though a person influenced by the understanding of Religious Pluralism may not be immediately impressed by this view, a better understanding of the various verses of Qur’ān on the subject would suggest that not only is it the correct Islamic understanding, this position can be supported rationally as well.
The Islamic understanding regarding religious diversity can be briefly mentioned thus:
Man started his religious journey with utmost clarity. This clarity was gifted to him by God a priori. However, because the temporary worldly life was meant to be a trial, humans were granted freedom. This freedom inclined them to differ and disagree in religious matters. In response, God sent prophets who confirmed what was right and rejected what was wrong. In the presence of the prophets, their addressees could see religious reality in its pristine form and therefore they had no justifiable excuse to reject it. Those who rejected it were declared, after an adequate time of effective preaching had passed, Kāfir, which means a person who denies the truth from God despite knowing it to be from Him.17 Some of these prophets were Rasūl (messengers), which is a status higher than the rest of the prophets, who are called Nabī.18 In case of a Rasūl, if his nation rejected him, it got destroyed in this world, either through natural calamities or through the military might of believers. In times when prophets are not present, neither anyone can be identified as a Kāfir nor can he be punished in this world for not believing in a message brought by a messenger, because of the existence of the possibility that the message may not have been properly and fully delivered by the non-prophet preachers. Believers are therefore expected to only preach intelligently in the absence of prophets. Since Muhammad was the last Rasūl (and Nabī), the possibility of anyone getting labeled as a Kāfir or punished for his disbelief after his death is eliminated for ever.
While they are preaching, believers are expected to show respect to other faiths and behave in a manner that would not tarnish the image of their own religion. In case a non-Muslim (or a disgruntled Muslim) is drawn away from Islam because of a Muslim’s poor behaviour, the latter will be held responsible for his misconduct and its consequences. The Qur’ān says:
ادْعُ إِلَى سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ وَجَادِلْهُمْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنْ ضَلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ (١٢٥:١٦)
Call them to the path of your Lord with wisdom and words of good advice, and reason with them in the best way possible. Your Lord surely knows who stray from His path, and He knows those who are guided the right way. (16:125)
In another passage it says:
وَلَا تَتَّخِذُوا أَيْمَانَكُمْ دَخَلًا بَيْنَكُمْ فَتَزِلَّ قَدَمٌ بَعْدَ ثُبُوتِهَا وَتَذُوقُوا السُّوءَ بِمَا صَدَدْتُمْ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَلَكُمْ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ (٩٤:١٦)
So do not make your oaths a means for deceiving one another, lest a foot should slip after having found its hold, and you taste of evil for having hindered [others] from the way of God, and suffer a grievous punishment. (16:94)
Politeness, concern, respect, and tolerance are therefore at the heart of a Muslim’s desired behaviour towards non-Muslims.
a. Qur’ānic Evidence of the Given Understanding
i) All humans had the same religion. It was freedom of choice given to them that led to differences. Prophets were then sent to clarify the truth. Teachings of prophets clarified truth beyond any possibility of doubt:
كَانَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً فَبَعَثَ اللَّهُ النَّبِيِّينَ مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنذِرِينَ وَأَنزَلَ مَعَهُمْ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ لِيَحْكُمَ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ فِيمَا اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ وَمَا اخْتَلَفَ فِيهِ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ أُوتُوهُ مِنْ بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَتْهُمْ الْبَيِّنَاتُ بَغْيًا بَيْنَهُمْ (٢١٣:٢)
Mankind were [to begin with]19 one community [then they differed among themselves], so God raised prophets, as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and sent down with them the book containing the truth that He might judge between people wherein they differed. [But then they began to differ about the Book], and none differed about it except those to whom it was given, after clear signs had come to them, out of jealousies among them. (2:213)
ii) Islam is the true religion of God.
إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ الْإِسْلَامُ (١٩:٣)
Surely the true religion with God is Islam. (3:19)
iii) Those who deny the message from God do so deliberately and therefore are worthy of condemnation:
الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمْ الْكِتَابَ يَعْرِفُونَهُ كَمَا يَعْرِفُونَ أَبْنَاءَهُمْ الَّذِينَ خَسِرُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ فَهُمْ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ (٢٠:٦)
Those to whom We gave [a part of] the Book [earlier] recognize him [Muhammad] as they recognize their sons. But those who ruin their souls, they will not believe. (6:20)
فَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ مَا عَرَفُوا كَفَرُوا بِهِ فَلَعْنَةُ اللَّهِ عَلَى الْكَافِرِينَ (٨٩:٢)
When there came to them that which they knew [to be the truth] they rejected it. Let the curse of God then be on the disbelievers. (2:89)
iv) Non-Muslims are not necessarily always Kafir.
a) Even during a certain stage in the presence of prophets, non-Muslims are not Kāfir, until such time they deliberately reject their message.
تَرَى كَثِيرًا مِنْهُمْ يَتَوَلَّوْنَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَبِئْسَ مَا قَدَّمَتْ لَهُمْ أَنفُسُهُمْ أَنْ سَخِطَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِمْ (٨٠:٥)
You shall see many of them [the Jews and Christians] making friends with those who disbelieve [against Muslims]. Surely evil is that which their souls have sent on before for themselves, so that God is displeased with them. (5:80)
The expression used in the above verse is not ‘those who are disbelievers” (i.e. those who are Kuffār) for Jews and Christians, but only for those Arabs who had already knowingly denied the Prophet Muhammad (sws). The People of the Book are only accused of being more friendly with the disbelievers than the believers (i.e. Muslims). In other words, there was a stage in the preaching mission of the Prophet Muhammad (sws) when the non-believing Jews and Christians were not categorized as disbelievers (Kuffār)
b) So long as the Jews and Christians were not convinced about the authenticity of Islam, they were required to follow the message they thought was from God:
فَإِنْ جَاءُوكَ فَاحْكُمْ بَيْنَهُمْ أَوْ أَعْرِضْ عَنْهُمْ وَإِنْ تُعْرِضْ عَنْهُمْ فَلَنْ يَضُرُّوكَ شَيْئًا وَإِنْ حَكَمْتَ فَاحْكُمْ بَيْنَهُمْ بِالْقِسْطِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ وَكَيْفَ يُحَكِّمُونَكَ وَعِنْدَهُمْ التَّوْرَاةُ فِيهَا حُكْمُ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ يَتَوَلَّوْنَ مِنْ بَعْدِ ذَلِكَ وَمَا أُوْلَئِكَ بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ (٥: ٤٢-٤٣)
[Muhammad!] if they [the people of the Book] come to you [for judgment], judge between them or [if you so choose] turn aside from them, they cannot harm you at all. And if you judge, judge between them with justice. Indeed God loves those who are just. And how do they make you their judge when they have with them the Torah, wherein is God’s judgment, yet in spite of that they turn their backs. They are certainly not believers. (5:42-43)
It can be inferred from the above verse that an individual is acknowledged as a believer so long as he honestly believes and sincerely follows what he thinks is the truth. The Qur’ān is not condemning the people of the Book for not accepting Islam in the above verse, even though the prophet was in their midst. It is condemning them for not following a message they themselves claimed was from God. That is what displeases God the most. The Qur’ān says:
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَنْ تَقُولُوا مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ (61: ٢-٣)
O believers, why do you profess what you don’t do? It is most hateful in the eyes of God that you say what you don’t practice. (61:2-3)
c) Some non-Muslims have in fact been praised in Qur’ān for their good character and attitude:
وَمِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ مَنْ إِنْ تَأْمَنْهُ بِقِنطَارٍ يُؤَدِّهِ إِلَيْكَ وَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ إِنْ تَأْمَنْهُ بِدِينَارٍ لَا يُؤَدِّهِ إِلَيْكَ إِلَّا مَا دُمْتَ عَلَيْهِ قَائِمًا (٧٥:٣)
Among the people of the Book there are those who if you trust them with a treasure, will return it to you; and among them there are those who, if you trust them with a dinar, will not return it to you, unless you keep standing over them. (3:75)
لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ وَيُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْخَيْرَاتِ وَأُوْلَئِكَ مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ (٣: ١١٣-١١٤)
They are not all alike. Among the people of the Book there is a party who stand by their covenant; they recite the Word of God in the hours of night and prostrate themselves before Him. They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin good and forbid evil, and hasten to vie with one another in good works. And these are among the righteous. (3:113-114)
وَإِنَّ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ لَمَنْ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ وَمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْهِمْ خَاشِعِينَ لِلَّهِ لَا يَشْتَرُونَ بِآيَاتِ اللَّهِ ثَمَنًا قَلِيلًا أُوْلَئِكَ لَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ (١٩٩:٣)
And surely among the People of the Book there are some who believe in God and in what has been sent down to you and in what was sent down to them, humbling themselves before Allah. They trade not the signs of God for a paltry price. It is these who shall have their reward with their Lord. Surely God is swift in settling account. (3:199)
v) Disbelievers (Kuffar) are bound to fail.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَالْمُشْرِكِينَ فِي نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أُوْلَئِكَ هُمْ شَرُّ الْبَرِيَّةِ (٩٨:٦)
Indeed those who disbelieve from among the people of the Book and the idolaters, will be in the fire of Hell, abiding therein. They are the worst of creatures.(98:6)
Such statements as the one above, if not understood in the right context, result in are extreme form of religious Exclusivism and bigotry.
vi) Well-meaning believers of different faiths have been promised paradise.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالنَّصَارَى وَالصَّابِئِينَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ (٦٢:٢)
Surely, those who believe [the Muslims] and the Jews and the Christians and the Sabians,20 whoever [from among them] believes in God21 and the last day and does good deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (2:62)
Those not included in the above-mentioned list of people who have been promised salvation in the Hereafter are the ones who deny God and the Hereafter, or don’t perform good deeds.22 The significance of this statement is that while there could be reasons for people not accepting messages of rightful prophets because of lack of proper information, belief in God and the life Hereafter and inclination to do good deeds is naturally gifted in man. To turn one’s back on them amounts to revolting against one’s God-given nature.
Concluding Remarks on the Islamic Approach
Although at the time of prophets, truth from God used to be so clearly manifested that there was no possibility for anyone to deny it, and therefore those who did so were considered worthy of being punished, no such claim could be made for the non-prophetic periods. Muslims have therefore got to perform only one role: preach and respect others for their faith, because they can never be sure whether the other people have rejected or stayed away from accepting the message of Islam despite knowing it to be from God.
This approach is different from Exclusivism in that it allows other faiths the space to operate given the realization that full information about religious truth is unavailable and it is not possible to deliver the religious message of Islam to non-believers as effectively as prophets did. This approach is neither Religious Inclusivism of the sort adopted by the Vatican Decree23, nor Religious Pluralism as proposed by Rowland Williams, John Hick, and Paul Badham. It allows the believer to be as confident about his faith as an Exclusivist, but requires him to be as tolerant in dealing with the people of other faiths as a Pluralist. It is, in fact, a call for religious tolerance because of the possibility of lack of proper communication of the true message of God. Since no body knows whether the other individual has been communicated the message of Islam properly, therefore, no Muslim has the right to condemn any non-Muslim on grounds of religious differences.
Having mentioned that, I feel that an important question needs to be addressed: Why have all these differences been allowed by the Almighty? John Hick has this to say about it:
He … has created us at an epistemic distance from Himself in order that a response to Him can be genuinely free.24
This understanding comes close to the Qur’ānic view on the subject insofar as freedom is concerned. However the Qur’ānic understanding would not entirely agree with Hick’s suggestion that we are at an epistemic distance from God. The distance is there, but it varies from individual to individual in all environments. It allows the individual to travel the distance in his journey towards God freely within the constraints of his environment and intellectual and spiritual potential. The important thing is that there is a level of certainty which is achievable in this world. The Qur’ān calls it ‘Ilmu’l[-Yaqin’ (ie intellectual certainty).25 In other words, these differences are there because of differences in circumstances and abilities. These differences were created to test the moral possibilities of individuals in different circumstances. The Qur’ān says:
وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَكُمْ خَلَائِفَ الْأَرْضِ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَكُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ (١٦٥:٦)
And He it is Who has made you successors [of others] on the earth and has exalted some of you over others in degrees of rank that He may try you by that which He has given you. (6:165)
Religious differences, in other words, were meant to see as to who performs well given his own range of information constraints. Had He done it otherwise, it would have amounted to use of force on His part, which would have defeated the very purpose of conducting a free test. The Qur’ān says:
وَعَلَى اللَّهِ قَصْدُ السَّبِيلِ وَمِنْهَا جَائِرٌ وَلَوْ شَاءَ لَهَدَاكُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ (٩:١٦)
And upon God rests [the showing of] the right way, and there are ways which deviate [from the right course]. And if He had [enforced] His will, He would have guided you all. (16:9)
The circumstantial differences will however not be allowed to influence the all-important outcome in the life hereafter for the individual. According to the Qur’ān, each individual shall be rewarded or punished in the afterlife on the basis of a judgment that will be made strictly in accordance with the individual’s circumstances. It says:
لَا يُكَلِّفُ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا (٢٨٦:٢)
God burdens not a soul beyond its capacity. (2:286)
أَلَّا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَى وَأَنْ لَيْسَ لِلْإِنسَانِ إِلَّا مَا سَعَى (٥٣: ٣٨-٣٩)
No bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another. And that man will have nothing but what he [himself] strives for. (53:38-39)
This understanding also helps in explaining why Muslims should behave differently in their treatment of the non-Muslims despite the fact that the messengers in some cases at least could be seen as inflicting apparently harsh treatment on their opponents. The reason according to this explanation lies in the fact that those who were treated that way were guilty of an extremely serious crime: denying the message of God even after knowing that it was from Him. As for the non-believers of the other periods, no one can be harmed for his faith due to the realization of the other person’s information constraints. This limitation was recognized even at the time when Muhammad (sws) himself had preached with utmost clarity and was ultimately required to inflict Divine punishment on the disbelievers for knowingly rejecting God’s message. Even at that time the Qur’ān makes an exception for the people who may not have received the message clearly. It says thus:
وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِنْ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّى يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ (٦:٩)
And if anyone of the idolaters seeks protection of you, grant him protection so that he may hear the word of God; then convey him to his place of security. That is because they are a people who have no knowledge.(9:6)
The teachings of Islam emphasize that there should be no religious persecution and individuals should be allowed the liberty to choose and practice their religion freely. A Muslim state is allowed or, in some cases, even religiously obliged to undertake Jihād (war) against the society which is persecuting people because of their beliefs. The Qur’ān urges the believers thus:
وَمَا لَكُمْ لَا تُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَالْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنْ الرِّجَالِ وَالنِّسَاءِ وَالْوِلْدَانِ الَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا أَخْرِجْنَا مِنْ هَذِهِ الْقَرْيَةِ الظَّالِمِ أَهْلُهَا وَاجْعَل لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ وَلِيًّا وَاجْعَل لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ نَصِيرًا (٧٥:٤)
What has come upon you that you fight not in the cause of God and for the oppressed men, women, and children, who pray: ‘Get us out of this town, O Lord, whose people are oppressors; so send us a friend by your will, and send us a helper’.(4:75)
The Qur’ān expects similar force to be used to defend religious buildings of other faiths as is desired to be used to defend Islamic places of worship. It says:
الَّذِينَ أُخْرِجُوا مِنْ دِيَارِهِمْ بِغَيْرِ حَقٍّ إِلَّا أَنْ يَقُولُوا رَبُّنَا اللَّهُ وَلَوْلَا دَفْعُ اللَّهِ النَّاسَ بَعْضَهُمْ بِبَعْضٍ لَهُدِّمَتْ صَوَامِعُ وَبِيَعٌ وَصَلَوَاتٌ وَمَسَاجِدُ يُذْكَرُ فِيهَا اسْمُ اللَّهِ كَثِيرًا وَلَيَنصُرَنَّ اللَّهُ مَنْ يَنصُرُهُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَقَوِيٌّ عَزِيزٌ (٤٠:٢٢)
And if God had not repelled some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is oft remembered, would surely have been destroyed. And God will, surely, help him who helps Him. God is indeed Powerful, Mighty. (22:40)
IV Criticism on the Islamic Approach
i) The point of view stated above has been created from only a few verses of the Qur’ān. If the entire Qur’ān is considered to form an opinion, then one could find many verses which appear extremely intolerant towards non-Muslims. What has been presented is only a one-sided picture which most fundamentalist Muslims don’t agree to and therefore they behave with non-Muslims in an intolerant way. Even if the point of view mentioned in this paper was assumed to be correctly reflecting the Qur’ānic view, the question that still remains unanswered is this: Why then has it been mentioned in such an ambiguous way that even most of the Muslim scholars were not able to understand it?
Response: This point of view, in fact, claims to explain each and every verse of the Qur’ān. The principle on which it is based is that the Qur’ān was revealed to the prophet to enable him to accomplish his prophetic mission. A part of the mission was to deliver a message which was meant for all times to come. However, another part of the message of the Qur’ān was meant for the prophet’s immediate mission of establishing the practical dominance of Islamic teachings in the Arabian Peninsula. There are many verses of the Qur’ān about which most Muslims agree that they were era-specific.26 There are some others about which there is ambivalence, not in the text itself, but in the understanding of the scholars who have not been able to place them properly. Those who are presenting a more aggressive, militant understanding because of their claim that all verses of Qur’ān have practical validity for all times, would find it difficult to explain some of them.27
ii) If the view presented in the paper is accepted, it has to be conceded that God wanted non-Muslims at the time of the prophet to be either crushed or subjugated. This understanding too is not going to sink too well with the understanding of justice and benevolence a humane religion is expected to display.
Response: The conclusion drawn about the non-Muslims of the prophet’s era is true. Islam would not be apologetic about it. The reason is that God wanted that the evidence of religious truth be established with certainty and then people be allowed to decide freely about their religion. If messengers (Rasūl) were not given the opportunity to dominate, the message of truth wouldn’t have disseminated. Moreover, the Qur’ān doesn’t want believers to have sympathy for the criminals who received God’s message most clearly and yet rejected it. No system would tolerate the activities of a criminal who despite being informed time and again that what he is doing is unacceptable still continues to indulge in acts of high treason against the state. If an individual was convinced that a letter was sent to him by his Creator and he tore it apart out of arrogance, no punishment should be considered too harsh for him. On the other hand, if Muslims were unfair in their understanding or implementation of Islam, they too would not be able to escape accountability. The Qur’ān says:
لَيْسَ بِأَمَانِيِّكُمْ وَلَا أَمَانِيِّ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ مَنْ يَعْمَلْ سُوءًا يُجْزَ بِهِ وَلَا يَجِدْ لَهُ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ وَلِيًّا وَلَا نَصِيرًا (١٢٣:٤)
It is neither dependent on your wishes [O Muslims] nor the wishes of the people of the Book; whosoever does ill shall be punished for it, and shall find no protector and friend apart from God. (4:123)
iii) Who is going to take the responsibility for the suffering that has already taken place because of the incorrect understanding of some Muslims?
Response: God Almighty has made this temporary life an occasion for trial. The real life is the one to come that would be eternal. If one is looking for complete justice in this world, one is living in a fool’s paradise. This world is unfair and would remain so as long as human freedom is allowed to be influenced by desire, prejudice, hatred, and other weaknesses. The only reason why a Muslim is looking for justice here is because that it is going to bring him success in the Hereafter. Those who suffer in this world innocently will be compensated adequately in the Hereafter. Suffering in this world is a part of the package of trial. We can only lessen suffering in this world, and all good Muslims ought to aim at that objective. However, the way this life has been designed, injustice and suffering cannot be eliminated. That is why, according to the Qur’ān, it makes no sense to not believe in the life Hereafter. God would make sure that all injustices of the worldly life are fully taken care of in the next life. In fact, one cannot possibly do greater harm to the cause of human welfare than to deprive humanity of a confident hope of a lasting life after death, based on principles of justice.
The correct Islamic approach towards non-Muslims is to assume that all of them have, as yet, not been properly convinced about the authenticity of the Divine origins of the teachings of Islam. It is for the Muslims to help the non-Muslims to appreciate the truthfulness of the Islamic teachings. That would require not only intelligent preaching on their part but, even more importantly, a behaviour of respect for the fellow human beings, irrespective of their faith. In case if they have to criticize other religious views, they should criticize only ideas and those too intelligently.
The absence of the desired behaviour on the part of some Muslims has been an important reason for their failure to present Islam as a message that is worthy of being taken seriously by non-Muslims. It will only be taken seriously by them if Muslims are peaceful, tolerant, and respectful towards other faiths while they continue their peaceful struggle to convince non-Muslims politely.
1. The article doesn’t claim that the approach mentioned in it is the only Islamic way of dealing with the question of religious diversity. However, the author strongly feels that despite the fact that many Muslims prefer other approaches which have been criticized in this article, the one presented here is the most strongly supported by Qur’ān. The author acknowledges the profound influence of the ideas of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and Wahiduddin Khan in formulating the thoughts expressed here.
2. See Badham, Paul; The Case of Religious Pluralism: An Inaugural Lecture given at St. David’s University College, Lampeter; 1991; p. 5
3. I have shown later in this article that this view is not consistent with the correct understanding of the Qur’ān.
4. I do admit that there could be examples of Exclusivists who would be genuinely interested in non-believers with a view to converting them to their faith. But that concern for others would give way to either lack of concern or hatred as soon as it is realized that the person is unlikely to embrace the Exclusivist’s faith.
5. Khan, Wahiduddin, Monthly Tadhkīr, Dāru’l- Tadhkīr; Lahore, Pakistan; February 2002; Urdu
6. See ‘The Islamic Approach’, p. 33
7. Badham, op. cit.
8. Badham, ibid., p. 9
9. See Badham, ibid.
10. John, 3:16
11. Badham op. cit.; 9-10
12. Hick, John; ‘Rational Theistic Belief Without Proofs’ in Paul Badham, John Hick’s Global Understanding of Religion; Tokyo Honganj: International Budhist Study Centre; 1992; pp.2-3
13. Khan; op. cit.; p. 43
14. See Gospel of John, op. cit. The claim of some Christian scholars that this understanding is only metaphorical in nature doesn’t alter the fact that the text mentions it clearly and that a large number of Christians believe it literally.
15. The Qur’ān says:
قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ اللَّهُ الصَّمَدُ لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ (١١٢: ١-٤)
Say: God is unique. God is immanently indispensable. He has begotten no one, and of none is He begotten. There is no one comparable with Him. (112:1-4)
16. Badham, op. cit., pp. 6-7
17. Saleem has stated the same understanding thus:
… Most directives of Islam that depict hostility and antagonism towards non-Muslims are directed towards a specific category of non-Muslims, which may exist today but cannot be humanly pinpointed. In reality, this category of non-Muslims were punished by the Almighty in the era of Muhammad (sws) and his Companions (rta) …. The hostility and antagonism which the Qur’ān depicts against these non-Muslims are actually the various manifestations of the punishment meted out to them. In religious parlance, such non-Muslims are called the Kuffār (singular: Kāfir) or Disbelievers. In other words, directives which depict hostility and antagonism against non-Muslims are not related to the non-Muslims of today since the Kuffār among them cannot be ascertained. (Saleem, Shehzad; Islam and Non-Muslims: A New Perspective; Monthly ‘Renaissance’; Lahore: Dar-ul-Ishraq; March, 2002; p. 8)
18. While all Rasūl were Nabī, all Nabī were not Rasūl i.e. the latter is a subset of the former.
19. Parentheses have been used in the translations to serve two purposes: i) Explanatory words are added to help the reader in appreciating the full sense of a statement which, because of the peculiar propensity of Qur’ānic text to be brief, is not stated in words but is clearly implied in the context; and ii) Phrases are inserted to clarify the meanings or connotations of an expression. For this latter purpose, the explanatory words are preceded by i.e.
20. In the light of a number of Qur’ānic verses which clarify that rejecting the claim of a genuine prophet of God is an unpardonable crime, in order to correctly understand this verse it should be assumed that the religious people mentioned in this verse were not guilty of rejecting any genuine prophet of God knowingly.
21. The Qur’ān (4:48) clarifies that those who ascribe partners with God (ie. polytheists) shall not enter Paradise.
22. The understanding comes very close to the following passage of the New Testament:
Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right’. (Acts; 10: 34-5)
I would like to acknowledge Professor Paul Badham of St. David’s University, Lampeter, Wales for guiding me to the above passage in his e-mail to me dated April 22, 2002.
23. The Vatican Decree does say: ‘Nor shall the divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God.’ (See Badham, op. cit., p. 9) This statement of the Decree comes very close to the Islamic approach I have proposed in this paper. However, the spirit of this approach is somewhat compromised when clear statements are made vindicating the positions of other faiths. Also, the positive mention of atheists in the Decree cannot help in clarifying the true Christian position.
25. The Qur’ān, 102:5
26. For example, see the Qur’ān: 2:180, 2:184, 4:15, 8:65-6, and 58:12
27. For example, the Qur’ān says: ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them’ (9:5). If this verse is to be held universally applicable, then Muslims should get rid of all the people they consider polytheist even today. Not many Muslim scholars would agree to that. However, if the vital distinction between era-specific and the universally applicable verses is not properly clarified, a literal understanding of this and other similar verses can have extremely dangerous consequences.
With thanks to Monthly Renaissance
Written/Published: Nov 2002