Inter-Religious Dialogue Needs The Qur’an’s Middle Nation Religious Pluralism – OpEd


The inter-religious congress meeting in mid September in Kazakhstan adopted a declaration about religious pluralism. Pope Francis participated in the opening and closing ceremonies of the inter-religious summit with almost 100 delegates from around the world, representing the world’s major religions. Point 10 of the declaration said: “We note that pluralism and differences in religion, skin color, gender, race, and language are expressions of the wisdom of God’s will in creation. Thus any incident of coercion to a particular religion and religious doctrine is unacceptable.”

The single biggest thing Pope Frances could do to widen the religious base for international peace and harmony would be to clearly reject the ‘zero sum game’ approach to religious thinking. As the Qur’an says: “Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witness against mankind and that the messenger may be witness against you…” (Qur’an 2:143) 

For almost 14 centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims have read each others holy scriptures from an adversarial perspective. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding of our own scripture. 

But in the middle ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis rather than a multiple win co-operative sport like mountain climbing. 

In a zero sum game, any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the widespread use of scripture for missionary purposes. The situation has not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. 

Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired. Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own scriptures are Divinely inspired. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature. I follow a different model, one I learned from prophet Muhammed. 

For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the Oral Torah, states, “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) 

And the Qur’an states,”one who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (Qur’an 5:32) 

Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is several centuries earlier than the Qur’an, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina. But if Muhammad is a prophet of God who confirms the Torah of prophet Moses, why would he need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics would reply that the statement is not written in the Torah, it is written in the Mishnah (which was written by the Rabbis more than 12-1300 years after Moses). 

But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses throughout the generations. Indeed, the Qur’an itself introduces this statement as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel “one who kills a human being …” (Qur’an 5:32) No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. God is the only source of Divine inspiration. 

My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures can not oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; they have the same father (God) and different mothers (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras). All of these produce different rituals and legal systems, but their theology differs only in unessential details. 

As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49) Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where the Scriptures differ they no contradict each other, rather they cast additional light on each other. My belief is based on an important Hadith of prophet Muhammad.

A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, “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.’ ” 

Following Muhammad’s teaching I neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was a prophet and I respect the Qur’an 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. 

How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur’an and my Torah? Indeed, this is what the Qur’an itself teaches. “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 this matter.” (22:67) 

One of the major differences between the Qur’an and the Torah is the Torah’s attention to details (names of people and places) and the Qur’an’s emphases on universals. The Torah has long lists of geographical locations and of genealogies that many people today, especially non-Jews, find boring. 

The Qur’an rarely identifies locations, and often omits the name of the people it mentions, as in the case of Samuel the prophet in the first text I referred to. Indeed, Muslim commentators disagree about many of these details. Some say the prophet who appointed Talut king of Israel was Samuel and others think it was Joshua or Simeon. These disagreements occur because they do not use the Bible to fill in the details for the generalities of the Qur’an.

On the other hand, many Rabbis get caught up in the details of the Torah and even expand them into super details. Thus, the rules relating to dietary observance of Passover and prohibited work on Shabbat have multiplied endlessly. 

We need to learn from the Sunnah of the prophet as narrated by Abu Huraira: 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, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded. (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38) 

Another important lesson from the prophet’s Sunnah as narrated by his wife Aisha who 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 Muhammed 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 far ahead of its time in many 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. 

At the time of Prophet Muhammed both Rabbis and Priests claimed that only their own believers would enter Paradise. 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) Thus 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 Prophet Moses, the Zubar of Prophet David, or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible is it asserted that only Jews will enter Paradise. The great first century Sage Hillel, taught that,”The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise. (Tosefta Sanhedrin) Prophet Jesus also taught, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not so, I would have told you. (John 12:2) 

But after the death of Prophet Jesus, many Christians made claims 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 Orthodox Talmudic Rabbis began to counter 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 (Talmud 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 Prophet Jesus who abandoned his teaching, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not so, I would have told you.” 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:) are also wrong. 

Tragically, during many centuries of Medieval debate between the three religions, everyone thought that religion was a zero sum game (one winner- one truth vs. many winners- 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 Muslim theological beliefs to the statements of the Qur’an: “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 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)

The Qur’an’s support for religious pluralism, and our own willingness to harmonize scriptural differences rather than exaggerate them, will provide a major base for religious believers to contribute to international peace and harmony, and reject the ‘zero sum’ philosophy of the past.

“Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witness against mankind and that the messenger may be witness against you. And We appointed the Qiblah which you formerly observed only that We might know him who followed the messenger, from him who turned on his heels. In truth it was a hard (test) save for those whom Allah guided.” (Qur’an 2:143)

For every nation there is a direction to which they face (in their prayers). So hasten towards all that is good. Wheresoever you may be, Allâh will bring you together (on the Day of Resurrection). Truly, Allâh is Able to do all things. (2:148)

Because “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east [as Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians do] or the west [as Roman Catholics do], but [real] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book [of their sacred scriptures], and the prophets; and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.” (2:177)

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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