The words “if Allah had so willed” appears 7 times in 6 verses in the Quran and proclaim that Allah wants there to be more than just one monotheistic religion. So religious pluralism is Allah’s will.
Say: “if Allah had so willed, I should not have recited it (the Qur’an) to you, nor would He (God) have made it known to you. A whole life-time before this have I spent among you: will you not understand?” (Yunus, Chapter #10, Verse #16)
Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha says, “Whenever the Prophet was given an option between two things, he used to select the easier of the two as long as it was not sinful; but if it was sinful, he would remain far from it.” (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 56, Number 147)
This is the path that I and most Reform Rabbis have taken in the last two centuries. If Orthodox Jews in the time of Muhammad had followed the prophet’s teaching, Reform Judaism (the largest of several different religious groups of Jews in North America) would have begun 14 centuries ago, instead of only two centuries ago.
The Qur’an was also ahead of its time in other ways. One of the most important ways is the Qur’an’s oft repeated statement that believers (Muslims) should believe in all the messengers of God. This message of religious pluralism and toleration is sorely needed in the 21st century.
The Qur’an states: “They say that none will enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. That is their wishfulness. Say ‘ Produce your proof if you are truthful.'” (2: 111)
At the time of Muhammad both Orthodox Rabbis and Catholic Priests did claim that only their own believers would enter Paradise. The Qur’an instructs Muslims that this claim is not based on the Jewish or the Christian scriptures but only on the desires of those people who make these claims. In truth, nowhere in the Torah of Moses, the Zabur (Psalms) of David, or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible is this claim made that only Jews will enter Paradise.
The great sage Hillel, who lived in the generation prior to the birth of Prophet Jesus taught that “The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise.”(Tosefta Sanhedrin) Prophet Jesus himself also taught “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not so, I would have told you. I’m going to prepare a place for you (in heaven).” (John 12:2)
But in the generations after the death of Jesus, claims were made in his name, that only those who believed Jesus was the son of God, who died on the cross to save all humans from going to Hellfire, would be able to enter Paradise. In reaction to these polemical Christian claims, some Talmudic Rabbis began to counter the claim that only Jews would enter Paradise.
Yet even then the Rabbis did not think that eternal punishment was the fate of all those excluded from Paradise. Gehenna-Hellfire was conceived of as a temporary abode generally believed to last a maximum of 12 months.
The great sage, Rabbi Akiba, stated. ” The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts 12 months.” (Mishnah Eduyyot 2:10) This is repeated in the Talmud, (Shabbat 33b) and elsewhere it is stated that sinners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are punished in Gehenna-Hellfire for (up to) 12 months (Rosh HaShanah 17a).
Thus the Qur’an accurately states, “They say, ‘the Fire will not touch us except for a fixed number of days”. (2:80) The Qur’an instructs Muslims to say to both Jews and Christians, “If the abode of the Hereafter with God is reserved for you alone, excluding other people, then long for death…but they will never long for it.” (2:94-5)
So, the answer to those who claim that “none will enter Paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian” is “No! Rather, whoever submits his whole being to God as one devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing him, his reward is with his Lord, and all such will have no fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:112)
Thus, the Qur’an affirms that those Rabbis who strayed from the words of Hillel, “The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise.” were wrong. Those followers of Jesus who abandoned his teaching, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places” and instituted the doctrine that “No one can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation.” (Saint Augustine:) were also wrong. The worshippers of false gods say: “if Allah had so willed, we should not have worshipped aught but Him – neither we nor our fathers,- nor should we have prescribed prohibitions other than His.” So did those who went before them. But what is the mission of apostles but to preach the Clear Message? An-Nahl, Chapter #16, Verse #35)
Tragically, during many centuries of Medieval debate between the three religions, everyone thought that religion was a zero sum game sport with only one winner and one truth; rather than a sport with many winners and many truths, i.e. soccer or tennis vs. hiking or mountain climbing).
Thus, some Muslim commentators also began to take the same exclusionary view condemned by Prophet Muhammad by adding specific details of theological belief to the statements in the Qur’an that stress a simple and firm belief in the one and only God: “No! rather, whoever submits his whole being to God as one devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing him, his reward is with his Lord, and all such will have no fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:112)
And even more explicitly, “Those who believe (Muslims), those who advocate Judaism, Christians, Sabeans, whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day, and does good righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, they will not fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:62)
Thank God, in 21st century America the majority of most religious groups now believe the teachings of the Qur’an cited above (2:112 and 2:62). A survey of over 35,000 Americans in 2008 found that most Americans agree with the statement: many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life.
This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including 82% of Jews, 79% of Catholics, 57% of evangelical Protestants and 56% of Muslims. (From the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008, Pew Research Center.)
Thus, in 21st century United States most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected the zero sum mind set and believe in the Qur’an’s teachings, “If God had so willed He could surly have made you a single community, but (He didn’t) in order to test you by what he has given you. Strive then, in competing in good works.” (5:48) For ultimately, “On the Day of Resurrection God will judge between you about what you differed.” ( 22:69)
Only those who reject God by disbelief or by unrepentant evil activities will be the losers when Judgement Day comes. But many, perhaps most theologians will learn that they might not be as smart as they thought they were.
So, it is very important to understand that ‘religious pluralism is 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 judgments.
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)
When Prophet Jesus was 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”. He said: “The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner.” (Muslim book 1 Hadith 1&4) Thus, God taught the general principle of epistemological humility through his Prophet who taught his followers “I am no novelty among the messengers. I do not know what will be done to me, or to you.” (Qur’an 46:9)
Only on Judgement Day will the answer to the theological differences that divide us now, be resolved. “To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open path. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (He desires) to test you in what He has given you: so (compete) strive in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is Allah. He will (on Judgement Day) show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (5:48)