So if there is only one God why are there so many religions?’ It is a good question; and as a Rabbi, when I am asked it this is my answer. The Qur’an declares that Allah could have made all of us monotheists, a single religious community, but (didn’t) in order to test our commitment to the religion that each of us have been given by God: “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God’s plan is) to test 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 verse from the Qur’an means that religious pluralism is the will of God. Yet for many centuries most believers in one God have chided and depreciated each other’s religions, and some believers have even resorted to forced conversions, expulsions and inquisitions. But monotheists all pray to the same God, and all prophets of monotheistic faiths are inspired by the same God.
How did this intolerance come about, and how can we eliminate religious intolerance from the Abrahamic religions. Greek philosophy, with its requirement that truth must be unchanging and universal, influenced most teachers of sacred scripture during Medieval times to believe that religion was a zero sum game; the more truth I find in your scripture the less truth there is in mine. Instead of understanding differing texts as complementary, polemists made them contradictory and declared the other religion’s sacred text to be false or corrupted.
If religion is to promote peace in our pluralistic world we must reject the zero sum game ideology and develop the pluralistic teachings that already exist within our sacred scriptures. After all “all prophets are brothers. They have the same farther (God) but different mothers (mother tongues, motherlands and unique historical circumstances that account for all the differences in their scriptures).
“Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all people to Jesus, son of Mary. Prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.” (Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith #652) Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion however; is one”. (Muslim, Book #030, Hadith #5836)
I am a Reform Rabbi who first became interested in Islam when I studied it at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem 60+ years ago. I have continued my study of Islam off and on for many years and for some time I have consider myself to be a Reform Rabbi who promotes the idea that Prophet Muhammad was a authentic non-Jewish prophet of Islam.
As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Prophet Abraham and I submit to the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice.
These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. In many ways statements in the Qur’an about Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Ahadith relating Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some 12-13 centuries later.
I could have written this essay about religious pluralism by using quotes only from the Hebrew Scriptures, such as: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in His paths. Torah will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord God has spoken. All the nations will walk in the name of their gods, and we (Jews) will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:1-5)
Or I could have used a pragmatic argument like a Jewish leader named Jephthah offered when he tried to avoid a war by appealing to an invading king as follows:”Do you not hold what Chemosh, your God, has given you? So we will hold on to all that Adonai, our God, has given us.” (Judges11:24)
Jephthah does not believe in Chemosh, nor does he think that Chemosh is just another name for the Holy One of Israel. He knows that the One God of Israel does not allow Jews to have any other god. But Jephthah recognizes the king’s religious beliefs and wants the king to equally recognize Israel’s.
Thus, Adonai the One God of Israel, is the only God for Jews; but others can have different views of God that they submit to, as long as this God leads them to practice kindness, charity and virtue. As the Qur’an declares, “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning the matter, but continue to call people to your Lord.,..God will judge between (all of) you on the Day of Resurrection about what you used to differ”. (22:67&69)
I choose to use Qur’an and Hadith to illustrate that all religions, as well as my own, have statements proclaiming and endorsing religious pluralism. All religions also have other statements that appear to claim religious exclusivity. These seemingly opposing views are the will of the one God, so that we may be tested.
Choosing between good and evil is a moral choice that even agnostics and atheists can do. Believers should believe in all God’s words (plural), but if we value kindness, humility and peace we are obligated to choose to understand the seemingly exclusive statements in the context of the accepting statements. As Allah’s Messenger said: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent. (Muslim: The Book of Faith Hadith #431) This is the will of God so that believers may be tested in their commitment to kindness, humility and peace.
One of the most important visions of the prophets of Israel occurs in the words of the prophet Micah. He declared that until the end of history, and throughout the Messianic Age, religious pluralism will continue to be the norm, even among so called polytheists.
“In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths. Torah will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord God has spoken. All the nations will walk in the name of their gods, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever. (Micah 4:1-5)
The opening section seems to predict Jewish pre-eminence; as all nations flow to Israel to be taught God’s ways, and our Torah streams to them. The second section predicts the universal peace that will reign in the Messianic Age under God’ rule. So far this agrees totally with the better known prophecy of Isaiah (2:2-4).
Then comes Micah’s revolutionary addition. Micah declares that the verses of the first section do not proclaim Judaism’s victory over all other religions, or even over all other God concepts. Even in the Messianic Age the other nations will still be loyal to their Gods just as we are loyal to our God. Indeed, it is possible to understand this verse to mean that the Messianic Age of universal peace will come about because all the nations, including Israel, actually live up to the best principles of their own religions.
Biblical thought denies the legitimacy of other Gods (religions) for Israel; but it does not deny the obvious truth that other nations do have other religions; and these other religions seem to have other Gods; and that is O.K. for them as long as they fill their life with good deeds, and their hearts with love for humanity.
Micah 4:5 was the first explicit statement of religious pluralism in the western world and the Qur’an is the latest of the Abrahamic religions to state: “Call (others) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair admonition, and argue with them in the kindest way. Your Lord knows best (and you don’t) who is misguided from His way; and He knows best who are guided.” (16:125)
The Qur’an also states: “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)
Indeed, “If Allah had pleased, those after them would not have fought one with another after clear arguments had come to them, but they disagreed; so there were some of them who believed and others who denied. If Allah had pleased they would not have fought one with another, but Allah brings about what He intends.” (Qur’an 2:253)
Most Jews are aware of the Rabbinic teaching that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. Thus, on judgement day: morality is, and theology is not, the standard by which each person’s life is judged. Jews are required to live up to Jewish rules and principles, and non-Jews must live up to their own religions rules and principles. Kindness, justice, mercy and humility are required of everyone. Jews can’t worship the sun or the moon, but other peoples can.
As Torah teaches “you must not be lured into bowing down to them (sun, moon and stars) … or serving them. These the Lord your God has allotted to all the (other) nations under all the heavens.” (Torah Deuteronomy 4:19)
If we can live up to the ideal that religious pluralism 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)