Religious Pluralism as defined by John Hick, one of the major proponents of this school of thought, is the belief that each religion will lead its followers to salvation, and the differences between religions are a result of various cultural factors which result in different responses and therefore different understandings of the same truth and reality. In response to this school of thought there is a major criticism that there are in reality huge differences between the beliefs of different religions, for example the Quran is strictly monotheistic and refuses to make any allowances for a monotheistic religion like Hinduism, John Hicks says that approaching historical claims with a scientific approach and improved dialogue can resolve many differences between believers of different religions (Wefound.org, n.d.)
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The purpose of this essay is to explore the room that the Quran allows in terms of religious pluralism with specific regard to Judaism and Christianity and all in all what attitude it possess towards these religions. The method used will be to analyze certain elements of what the Quran says and their implication as far as the perception of Muslim’s regarding these religions and how it reflects on the Quran’s stance on pluralism.
Treatment of prophets of Judaism and Christianity
One of the key factors to understand and know in regard to this topic is that the Quran recognizes both these religions as part of a line of religions of which the final one was Islam1. This means that Muslims are asked to recognize the prophets of Judaism and Christianity as messengers of God and to respect them as such. This important stricture has been repeated many times in the Quran. For example:
“It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong).”(Yusuf Ali, 3:3)
“We gave Moses the Book, and made it a Guide to the Children of Israel, (commanding): “Take not other than Me as Disposer of (your) affairs. O ye that are sprung from those whom We carried (in the Ark) with Noah! Verily he was a devotee most grateful”( Al-Quran, 17: 2-3)
These verses clearly show that the Quran recognizes that it is the same Allah who revealed the Quran to have revealed the Torah and the Bible and he is the one to have inspired their prophets. This immediately indicates two important things. One is that as far as Christianity and Judaism goes the Quran is recognizing a key tenant of pluralism, that each religion leads to salvation and understanding of the ultimate reality. If the Quran recognizes that each prophet was a messenger of the One God then it is immediately recognizing that each explained the same ultimate reality. Another important impact is the tolerance and respect that the Quran is recommending for Christian and Judaic beliefs. Although, as we will discuss a little later on in the essay, the command for respect and tolerance has been qualified by certain other factors.
Comparison’s of historical fact and its impact on religious pluralism
Also in addition to recognizing that these prophets were inspired by the same God, it also refers to many stories of these prophets as parables of various virtues and the stories of their people as representative of various sins and very frequently examples of disobedience. The following verse describes the story of Mary(mother of Jesus), and although there might be differences in biblical and Quranic accounts they are very similar and the Quran treats her with the same reverence and respect as the Christians accord her.
“‘Behold! a woman of ‘Imran said: “O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service: So accept this of me: For Thou hearest and knowest all things. When she was delivered, she said: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered of a female child!”- and Allah knew best what she brought forth- “And no wise is the male Like the female. I have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected. Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty.”(Al-Quran, 35-37)
The fact that the Quran quotes this story amongst many others is twofold. One is again that the fact that the Quran extends such reverence to these figures should again stress on Muslims the importance of a tolerant and respectful attitude towards these figures and also it is relevant with regards to religious pluralism. One of the key criticisms of religious pluralism is that there are differences in the historical facts that each religion recognizes and which form an important basis for their belief. If Islam recognizes similar stories and beliefs that means there is a strong link between these religions. However it is important to note that not all the stories are similar as depicted by the Torah and the Bible, there are in fact key differences in the implication of certain stories. A key difference for example is the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and rebirth which is told somewhat differently in the Quran. This has led to the important difference in beliefs as far as the concept of Original Sin goes in Islam. Original Sin which implies that Jesus bore the burden of humanity’s sin on his shoulders and had to suffer to redeem humanity is not at all present in Islam. The Quran holds each individual independently responsible for his actions which is why there is nothing similar to baptism or the concept of humanity’s guilt that is an important tenant of many Christian sects.
Concept of Monotheism
One of the most key concepts of Islam is the concept of monotheism. The Quran insists more then it insists on anything else is that Allah is one Lord, he is the sole God, the only creator of the universe and there is no one who in anyway can be compared to him. In the concept of monotheism Quran has only one inflexible and stringent view:
“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him” (Al Quran 17:110).
While this verse stresses on his unity and oneness the opening verses of the Quran stress on his unity and on the importance of depending only on him.
“In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek”(Al-Quran, 1:1-5)
The relevance of these verses of our topic is that because the concept of monotheism is so key to the Quran any kind of religious pluralism would only be acceptable to the Quran if the other religion being considered would stress thus equally on monotheism. Presumably as the previous part of the essay indicates to us that Quran accepts that Islam is the last in a line of religions of which Judaism and Christianity are part it would appear that the Quran would recognize monotheism as being an important part of these religions too. However this is where the difference emerges. Despite all of this the Quran identifies key differences between the three religions. As far as Christianity is concerned the Quran interprets trinity as a variation on the concept of monotheism and thereby making this religion unacceptable. The Quran says in reference to this:
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“O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His apostles. Say not “Trinity” : desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah. Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs”(Al-Quran, 4: 171)
“Certainly they disbelieve who say: “Surely Allah – He is the Messiah, son of Maryam”. Say: “Who then could control anything as against Allah when He wished to destroy the Messiah, son of Maryam and his mother and all those on the earth?” And Allah’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and what is between them; He creates what He pleases; and Allah has power over all things.”(Al-Quran, 5:17)
Although many Christians raise objections to this kind of interpretation to the concept of trinity, saying that meaning of the trinity is allegorical in nature and should not be taken literally, this is the interpretation that the Quran has given. This issue is a significant one in the understanding of why despite the common history and beliefs these religions share there is a significant gap between what the Quran allows and religious pluralism. The Quran will never allow any religion as alternate that even hints at anything non-monotheistic in nature. This is why even though Muslim’s might have a great deal of respect for these two religions they will never accept these religions as equal to theirs or as replacements to theirs. The explanation generally given to join these two contradictory factors is that these books and tenants were revealed as such to others over time they have become corrupted by worldly beliefs and precepts which were not divinely inspired and which is why it is no longer acceptable to follow these religions as alternate to Islam (Tabataba’I, n.d).
Criticism of members of Judaic and Christian traditions
At many points and times the Quran recounts stories and parables in which it is very critical of their acts in which they move away from God an succumb to world sin and temptation. A good example is when the Quran recounts the story of when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the commandments from God and in his absence his follower’s betrays him and their promise to God. The Quran says:
“And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you (in forgiveness): For He is Oft- Returning, Most Merciful.” (Al-Quran, 2:54)
Although the focus of this verse is not on Judaic beliefs the criticism of Jews means that Quran is not exactly furthering the cause of pluralism.
Concept of Islam as the perfect religion and Quran as the perfect book
A key factor that again negatively affects the case of pluralism as far as the Quran is concerned, that the Quran states that it is the final book and that Islam is the religion that God has chosen and perfected for his people. As the Quran clearly states:
“This day have those who reject faith given up all hope of your religion: yet fear them not but fear Me. This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” (Al-Quran, 5:3)
This aspect of the Quran makes pluralism a very hard pill to swallow even as far as Judaism and Christianity are concerned, which are religions that the Quran admits are so closely linked to Islam. This implies or most Muslim’s at least interpret it as such that salvation is due to those who follow Islam, because only through Islam can individuals achieve the salvation and comfort they seek.
The essay has analyzed how the Quran position’s Judaism and Christianity and whether this positioning allows any room for pluralism.
While it is clear that the Quran identifies and in fact stresses on the close link between these religions and Islam and expects Muslims to show absolute respect for their prophets and their books, there are certain elements which indicate that the Quran leaves little room for pluralism.
One key factor is the absolute stress on monotheism, which is the most important tenant of Muslim beliefs as put forward by the Quran. The Quran does not allow for any deviation from its interpretation of this tenant. Along with other polytheistic religions and traditions it is also critical of the Christian belief in Trinity, creating a significant hurdle in the prospect of pluralism. However a positive note here is that the Quran does point out certain Christian sects as having retained the true path as revealed by God. This means that perhaps further dialogue between Muslim and Christian intellectuals will help reduce this gap in interpretation of beliefs. Another issue is the Quran’s stress that Islam is the final and most perfect religion and the others have been corrupted by worldly influences. There is actually a similar belief in Judaic customs which implies that they alone know the true path to salvation from God (Tabataba’I, n.d).
The reality is that today there is a great need for inter-religious unity and understanding, but a great deal of dialogue and tolerance of other’s belief is required before this and the ideal of pluralism can achieve.
Al-Quran. Translation Yusuf-Ali, Abdullah. Islam101.com (n.d)(n.p.) Web.
‘Islam: The Perfect Religion and Best Way of Life for All’ wefound.org (n.d.) (n.p). Web.
Tabataba’I, Husayn Sayyed Muhammad ‘Arguments of the Qur’an against the belief of Trinity.’ Quran.org (n.d.) (n.p). Web.
1 ‘The literal meaning of Islam is peace; surrender of one’s will i.e. losing oneself for the sake of God and surrendering one’s own pleasure for the pleasure of God. The message of Islam was revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings on him) 1, 400 years ago. It was revealed through angel Gabriel (on whom be peace) and was thus preserved in the Holy Quran. The Holy Quran carries a Divine guarantee of safeguard from interpolation and it claims that it combines the best features of the earlier scriptures’.