Has Islam been the one religion acceptable to God since the days of Prophet Muhammad? Does Islam claim to replace Christianity and Judaism, the way Christianity claimed (until recently) to have replaced Old Testament Judaism?
One does frequently hear extremist, and even some non-extremist Muslims, quote the Qur’anic verse: “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers.” (Qur’an 3:85) That sounds pretty exclusive.
But the Qur’an also states, and then repeats: “Verily, those who believe, and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds; shall have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Quran 2:62 & 5:69)
And the Qur’an goes even further, proclaiming that religious pluralism is the will of Allah. “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God’s plan is) to test (each group of) you in what He has given you: so compete in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is to (please) Allah who will show you on judgment day the truth of the matters which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)
This means that religious pluralism is the will of God. Thus, we will never know “the truth of the matters which you dispute” until judgement day. What we can know is who is the kindest and most charitable among us.
Yet for centuries many believers in one God have chided and depreciated each other’s religions, and some believers have even resorted to forced conversions, expulsions, inquisitions and massacres to spread their faith even though monotheists all pray to the same God, and all prophets of monotheistic faiths are inspired by the same God.
The two Quran verses above (Quran 2:62 & 5:69) place Jews, Christians, and Sabians alongside Muslims; and say that any one among them who “believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve”.
Although these two verses (Quran 2:62 & 5:69) seem to be completely contradictory to the first verse (Qur’an 3:85), and it is possible that one view abrogates the other, there is a much simpler explanation.
There are two meanings for the word “Islam”. First, there is basic, fundamental, Islam (submission to God) which was the religion of all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad.
Second, there is the special and unique religion, or more accurate, way of life of Islam taught by Prophet Muhammad.
The two verses quoted above refer to basic, fundamental, Islam and not to the special and unique religion of Islam. In today’s terms; basic Islam should be spelled ‘islam’ without a capital letter ‘I’, and special and unique Islam should be spelled with a capital ‘I’.
The same is true for Muslim, a member of a special and unique community, and ‘muslim’ referring to one who follows the fundamental “religion” of living in obedience to the commandments of the one God as taught by Moses, Jesus, or any other prophet of the one God.
Thus, “And whoever seeks a religion other than (monotheistic) islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers.” (Qur’an 3:85) includes Jews, Christians, and Sabians (whoever they are) but does not include atheists on one hand, and polytheists on the other hand.
Religious pluralism as the will of God is very different from religious, moral or cultural relativism. Relativism teaches that all values and standards are subjective, and therefore there is no higher spiritual authority available for setting ethical standards or making moral judgements.
Thus, issues of justice, truth or human rights are, like beauty, just in the eye of the beholder. Most people, especially those who believe that One God created all of us, refuse to believe that ethics and human rights are simply a matter of taste. Religious pluralism as the will of God is the opposite of cultural or philosophical relativism.
The fundamental idea supporting religious pluralism is that religious people need to embrace humility in many areas of religion. All religions have always taught a traditional anti self centered personal egoism type of humility. Religious pluralism also opposes a religious, philosophical, and self righteous intellectual egoism that promotes a tendency to turn our legitimate love for our own prophet and Divine revelation into universal truths that we fully understand and know how to apply.
Religious pluralism teaches that finite humans, even the most intelligent and pious of them, can not fully understand everything the way the infinite One does. This is true, for every human being, even for God’s messengers themselves. When prophet Moses.”who God spoke with face to face, as a person speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11) asks to see God face to face, he is told, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live.” (33:20)
Similarly, in the Qur’an prophet Jesus admits to God, “You know everything that is within myself, whereas I do not know what is within Yourself”. (7:116) In the New testament when prophet Jesus is asked, in private, by his disciples, “What will be the sign for your coming (back) and the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns his disciples about all kinds of upheavals and false Messiahs that will come. Then Jesus concludes by saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the son: only the Father”. (24:36)
A similar statement was made by prophet Muhammad when he was asked, “Tell me about the Hour”. Muhammad replied: “The one questioned about it, knows no better than the questioner.” (Muslim book 1:1&4) Prophet Muhammad taught the general principle of epistemological humility to his followers when he said, “I am no novelty among the messengers. I do not know what will be done to me, or to you.” (Qur’an 46:9)
The famous Qur’an verse (2:255) called Ayat Al-Kursi, the “Throne verse” is known for its profound meaning and its inspiring message. Allah is well described, and we are informed that the knowledge of Allah is incomparable to our own humble efforts. The Throne verse begins: “Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Supporter of all.” and ends: “They shall not encompass any of His knowledge except as He wills. His Throne/dominion extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. For He is the Most High, the Supreme in glory.” And the very next verse states: “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion (Islam).” (2:256) because all humans have limited knowledge and no one should force anyone else to believe what is knowable only to Allah.
The Qur’an refers to Prophet Abraham as a community or a nation: “Abraham was a nation-community [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (16:120) If Prophet Abraham is an Ummah then fighting between the descendants of Prophets Ishmael and Isaac is a civil war and should always be avoided.
If all Arabs and Jews can live up to the ideal that ‘the descendants of Abraham’s sons should never make war against each other’ is the will of God; we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)