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Qur’an And Torah On Religious Pluralism Is God’s Will – OpEd

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For almost all of the 20th century issues of nationalism and socialism engaged the hearts, minds and activities of large numbers of people throughout the world in ways that were both positive and negative. In the last two decades the rivalry and conflicts of these two ideologies have been in decline, and a world wide religious revival is now occurring. Few can doubt that political-religious ideologies and movements in the 21st century can and will be both liberating and destructive for many societies as well as many millions of individuals. People, organizations and movements who are fully committed to contributing to a world at peace, and who are equally committed to respect both our own religion and our neighbor’s, will need to do all we can to promote interfaith religious respect through the advocacy of religious pluralism as the will of God.

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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)

And 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) Prophet Jesus warns his disciples about all kinds of upheavals and false Messiahs that will come. Then he 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 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)

If, even the messengers of God humbly admit that they do not know the answers to many questions, how much more should we ordinary believers refuse to claim to know it all. When it comes to religious truths, we can see them, but only in part. The part we can see derives from the prophets and the holy scriptures that Jews, Christians and Muslims have been blessed with. As the Qur’an declares, “Every people has a direction towards which they turn; so compete together wherever you may be as if in a race towards all that is good. Surely Allah will bring you all together.” (2:148) Religions are to compete with one another, but not by claiming to be in possession of a better or higher truth.

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Religions should compete in doing good deeds. This is a test of the commitment and effectiveness of each communities leaders, and the sincerity and devotion of each religion’s followers. Competing in doing good is a test for us as believers. It is not a test for determining which religion has the truest truth. This is why God made us into many nations, and many religions. “For each We have appointed a clear way of life and a comprehensive system. If Allah had so willed He would surely have made you a single community: but (didn’t) in order to test you by what (Scripture) He granted you. So compete together as if competing in good works. All of you will (ultimately) return to Allah and then He will make you understand what you have differed about.” (Qur’an 5:48) Only after resurrection, at the time of final judgements, will humans be able to understand the full meaning of their various sacred scriptures, and the truths contained in the differences between them. In this world, God has determined that religious humility must rule.

Large scale immigration, the ubiquity of modern media, and the Internet have transformed our world, and now require religious leaders to spend much more time and effort studying their own tradition to find and publicize ideas of religious pluralism. I firmly believe that throughout human history, prophets and holy men have appeared in every nation and every tribe to speak God’s words. “Assuredly We have raised up within every community a Messenger (proclaiming) worship God alone, and keep away from false Gods and the powers of evil. Among them (each religious community) were people whom God guided, just as there were among them those for whom straying was their just due.” (Qur’an 16:36).

Thus, I am not surprised to find that every major religious tradition I have studied has some statements affirming the philosophy of religious pluralism. These texts were only theory in pre-modern times, when contact between different major religious communities was very limited, and so they were not accorded the emphasis and significance that they now deserve. That needs to be changed.

Christians and Jews have the words of the prophet Micah, who declared that until the end of history, and into the Messianic Age, religious pluralism will continue to be the norm even among polytheists. “Though all peoples/nations walk, each in the name of its Gods, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.” (Micah 4:5) Micah, lived 2,700 years ago, in the same generation as the more famous prophet Isaiah. Micah is the first explicit proponent of religious pluralism in the west. Micah, like all prophets sent to Israel, and all the other prophets sent to other peoples, believed that there was only one God. Yet he was inspired by that one God to proclaim that the many peoples and nations on the earth would never have only one religion. Even polytheism would survive until the end of days. However, it might be that what we would call polytheism and idol worship today will someday be understood by the polytheists as monotheism.

In India, about three or four centuries prior to prophet Micah, the Rig-veda, the oldest scripture in Hinduism, stated (Book 1, hymn 164, verse 46): “Sages/Priests call the one God by many names.” But the word translated as God really means ultimate reality /truth and the usual translation of “Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti” is, “Truth is one but learned men describe it differently”. As a Rabbi, I would interpret this to mean that ‘God/Ultimate Reality is one, but Hindu sages declare/define/discuss/differentiate it as many.’ A Hindu philosopher would say that when Hindus enter a temple and see perhaps a dozen different statues of Deities, in their mind, they see just one Divinity.

The many religious streams making up Hinduism: the Vaishnava worship of Krishna, the Shaiva worship of Shiva and the Shakta worship of Durga are unified through the power of this simple verse. To a Rabbi this verse is really not a statement about the one unique Divine personality who created the universe, and who should not be associated with any of the gods of polytheism. The verse expresses a philosophy of universal metaphysical truth called monism (the denial of meaningful fundamental distinctions) or as this philosophy is usually call by Buddhists; non dualism.

By religious pluralism I mean a conscious acceptance that there can be, and are, legitimate alternate values and views, that contain different truths for other peoples and religions. This is what the Qur’an teaches about the Abrahamic religions and in at least one passage the Qur’an anticipated that traditional polytheism could be turned into a kind of monotheism if its adherents understood it that way, as many of today’s Hindus and Zoroastrians do. “Those who believe (Muslims), those who declare Judaism, Christians and Sabaeans: whoever believes in God and the last day (of Judgment) and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they shall have no fear, nor will they grieve”. (Qur’an 2:62) The traditional commentaries have suggested that the Sabaeans could be many different religious groups among them Zoroastrians and Hindus. Only God knows.

About the same time as the Rig Veda spoke of many truths/gods/realities fundamentally being one and the same, a Jewish leader named Jephthah offered a different approach. 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 YHVH, 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, YHVH the One God of Israel is the only God for Jews but others can have one God that they submit to.

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) To use a simple example; there are many ways to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Some people fly, others take the train or the bus, most drive by car and a few even sail or ride a bike. Each way has its pros and cons. Flying is fast but you do not see the scenery. Driving is less expensive but you can’t read or sleep on the way.

What is important to understand is that you can’t take the different ways and combine them to get the best of all ways. A combination of a boat, a car, a bike and a train will not produce something that will take you anywhere. Indeed. the Qur’an asserts that although the prophets all bring the same basic message of ethical monotheism the details vary according to the time and situation of each people, and prophets vary in their roles, activities, and personality. Qur’an, 2:253, states: “We made some of these messengers excel others; to some Allah spoke (directly), others He exalted in rank; and to Jesus son of Mary We gave clear miracles and strengthened him with the holy spirit. 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.” Also,Qur’an 17:55 which reads: “And your Lord best knows those who are in the heavens and the earth; and certainly We have made some of the prophets to excel others, and to David We gave a scripture (Psalms)”.

Prophet Muhammad himself taught that even in the world to come it will not be clear if Moses or Muhammad is the supreme Prophet. Narrated Abu Huraira: Two persons, a Muslim and a Jew, quarreled. The Muslim said, “By Him Who gave Muhammad superiority over all the people! The Jew said, “By Him Who gave Moses superiority over all the people!” At that the Muslim raised his hand and slapped the Jew on the face. The Jew went to the Prophet and informed him of what had happened. The Prophet sent for the Muslim and asked him about it. The Muslim informed him of the event. The Prophet said, “Do not give me superiority over Moses, for on the Day of Resurrection all the people will fall unconscious and I will be one of them. I will be the first to gain consciousness, and I will see Moses standing and holding the side of the Throne (of Allah). I will not know whether (Moses) had also fallen unconscious and got up before me, or Allah has exempted him from that stroke.” (Bukhari book 76 #524) Christians, Jews and Muslims should learn humility from this teaching of Prophet Muhammad.

And followers of all religions should always repeat this teaching of Allah’s Messenger, “Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion is, however, one.” (Muslim, book #030, Hadith #5836) All prophets have the same father, who is the One God whose inspiration gives birth to their prophethood. However, each prophet has a different mother i.e. the nation and people as well as the period and age that he speaks to. Thus prophets are brothers in faithfulness to the One God, but their Divinely inspired message differs because it must be appropriate for their motherland, their mother tongue, their own people and the historical circumstances of the prophet’s lifetime.

To be honest, we must admit that in the past religious leaders spent all of their time and effort seeking to educate, elevate and enlighten the members of their own religious community. This was only natural because 98% of their members rarely or never were engaged with beliefs or believers of another major religious tradition, much less with several other major religious traditions. The Qur’an is the major exception to this, and I have drawn upon the Qur’an’s teachings about religious pluralism for most of my argument that religious pluralism is the will of God.

The Qur’an is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. The Qur’an proclaims that there have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged their society to avoid destruction by turning away from corrupt and unjust ways and turning to the One God who created all humans. The Qur’an mentions 25 prophets by name, and several others like Samuel without naming them. Of the 25 mentioned by name in the Qur’an only five; Abraham, Moses,David, Jesus and Muhammad revealed books of sacred scripture, and only Prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad revealed books of sacred scripture that are the bases for the three Abrahamic religious communities that still flourish today. Prophet David’s book was the Zabur/Psalms. Prophet Abraham’s book has disappeared, unless it was incorporated into the Torah as the first half of Genesis, and into the Qur’an in several different chapters. Note that the Qur’an speaks of “the Scrolls of Abraham and Moses” in verse 87:19 and of “the Scrolls of Moses and Abraham” in verse 53:36&7; but God knows best.

Muslims believe that within each community there are at least three different groups or parties. There are hypocrites who claim to be believers in their book, but do not live according to its teachings. There are the majority, who are pious believers but do not always do all they should, And there are those who are excellent examples of the religious ideas of their prophet and their scriptures. Thus, the Qur’an proclaims, “That which We reveal to you of the book (the Qur’an) confirms the revelations prior to it. Surely God is fully aware of His servants (deeds) and sees well. Then We made those of Our servants whom We chose heirs to the Scripture. However, among them (the followers of each revealed book) are those who wrong their own selves (by sinning), and among them are those who follow a moderate way (average followers) and among them are those who, by God’s leave. are foremost in doing good deeds. That is the great favor.” (Qur’an 35:31&32)

How do I, as a Reform Rabbi, go about understanding some Jewish texts from a Qur’anic religious pluralism perspective, and how in the same way, I understand differences between Judaism and Islam. I think of myself as a Reform Rabbi and an Islamic Jew. Actually I am an Islamic Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Prophet Abraham – the first Muslim Hebrew (Genesis 14:13), and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

In the Hebrew Bible, Prophet Abraham is the first person to be called a “Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew comes from the verb ‘to go over a boundary’— like the Euphrates or Jordan river— or ‘to be an immigrant.’ The first thing God told Prophet Abraham in the Biblical account was: “Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name (Israel) great, so that you will be a blessing….” (Bible Genesis 12:1-2)

So Prophet Abraham was what we can call the first ‘Islamic Hebrew’ or the first ‘Muslim Hebrew,’as the Qur’an indicates: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyaan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyaan, ‘a Christian,’ but rather a Haniifaan, ‘a submitter to God,’… (Quran, 3:67)
i.e. ‘a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God’ who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel) into a great multitude of monotheists called the Children of Israel  —B’nai Israel in Hebrew and Banu Israel in Arabic.

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. Although most Jews are no longer Orthodox, if the Jews of Prophet Muhammad’s time had followed these teachings of prophet Muhammad; Reform Judaism would have started 1,400 years ago.

Ahadith are narrative accounts by Muhammad’s companions of situations involving God’s messenger and rulings or statements that Muhammad made. A Hadith narrated by his 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 book 56 #760) I follow this in my own life as an Islamic Jew; and as a Reform Rabbi I teach it to the members of my congregation.

As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Prophet Muhammad was the Prophet sent to the Muslim community. I believe that the Qur’an is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for us Jews. Indeed, I love the Hadith Narrated by Abu Huraira that says, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.'” (Bukhari book 92 #460 and book 93 #632)

Following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching I also neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. I do respect the Qur’an very much as a kindred revelation to a kindred people in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth. The strong support that the Qur’an gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by all the religious fundamentalists in the world today.

Over many centuries the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law has gotten stricter and stricter. As a Reform Rabbi I totally agree with the Hadith Narrated by Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas: The Prophet said, “The most sinful person among the Muslims is the one who asked about something which had not been prohibited, but was prohibited because of his asking.” (Bukhari book 92 #392) For example, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of animals for meat, and the total avoidance of certain animals for food. (Qur’an 2:173, 6:145, & 16:115) In Islam the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism. (Qur’an 6:146 , Leviticus 11:1-47 & Deuteronomy 14:3-21)

Most Reform Rabbis would regard the increasingly restrictive developments in kashrut- Jewish dietary laws, especially for Passover, as a counterproductive, overburdening of the people. The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities is also seen by most Reform Rabbis as an unneeded overburdening of the joy of Shabbat. Prophet Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of all extremisms. Just trying to do well will be rewarded. As Abu Huraira related: The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, just try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Bukhari book 2 #38)

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. And prior to the 20th century Arabs and Jews never did make war with each other.

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 can 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)

While the Holy Ka’ba and Makkah City are open only to Muslims, the Holy Jerusalem Temple and the City of Jerusalem were always open to all monotheistic pilgrims; who would sing as they ascended to both the Holy Temple and the City the following hymn from the Zabur of Prophet David (Psalm 122); “A song of ascents. Of David.
1 I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
2 Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built like a city closely compacted together.
4 That is where the tribes ascend, the (12) tribes of the LORD, to praise the name of the LORD according to the laws given to Israel.
5 There stand thrones for judgment, thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls; and security within your citadels.”
8 For the sake of my (Abrahamic) family and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your (civic) welfare. (NIV)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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