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Why Does One God, With One Message, Produce Many Different Religions? – OpEd

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Most college students at one time or another have asked, ‘If there is only one God why are there so many religions?’ This is a good question that I as a Rabbi have often been asked.

This is my answer. The Qur’an declares that Allah could have made all of us monotheists, with just a single religious community, but didn’t, in order to test our loyalty to the prophet and the religion each of us have been given.

“To each of you We proscribed a law and a method. Had Allah 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 in which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)

Why do I as a Rabbi answer this question by quoting the Qur’an?

Because I think of myself as a Reform Rabbi and an Islamic Jew. I am an Islamic Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because as a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Islamic Jew, 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 Orthodox Jewish religious leaders should not have made religion difficult for people to practice. This is one of the lessons that prophet Muhammad taught, 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.

Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.K..Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.

As a Reform Rabbi who first began studying Islam at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem over 60 years ago. I think it is vitally important for our generation to understand how much Islam and Judaism have in common.

All Monotheists agree that there is only one God; who does not want us to associate in our worship, any other being.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7)

“We never sent any apostle without having revealed to him that there is no Deity save Me; therefore, you shall worship [only] Me.”  (Qur’an 21:25)

Jews, Muslims and most Protestants also believe that the one God, who created the whole universe, does not want us to worship God through statues, paintings and other objects made by human beings.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters below.” (Deuteronomy 5:8)

“It has been revealed to you, and to those before you that if you ever commit idol worship, all your [good] works will be nullified, and you will be with the losers. So worship [only] God and be among the grateful.” (Qur’an 39:65-6)

Since the Children of Israel were the only ongoing monotheistic community in the centuries after the Torah of Prophet Moses and the Psalms of Prophet David, there were many occasions when a part of the Jewish people were seduced into following the majority of non-Jewish idol worshippers. The prophets constantly opposed those who made and worshipped idols.

Prophet Habakkuk proclaims: “Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.” (2:18)

And Prophet Muhammad proclaims the same message: “As for the idols they set up beside GOD, they do not create anything; they themselves were created. They are dead, not alive, and they have no idea how or when they will be resurrected.”  (Qur’an 16:20-21)

In addition to these two basic commitments relating to Divine worship, God requires all of us to live a   humble, kind and virtuous life, according to the rules that each of God’s Prophets have given to our nation and tribe:

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to be in awe of the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good.”  (Deuteronomy 10:12-14)

This is why Jesus answered a man who asked him which of the many commandments God gave to the Jewish People was the most important and fundamental one, by saying there were two, not just one:

“The first of all the [Torah’s] commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

“And the second, is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18) There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

This teaching of Jesus, is the same message that Prophet Micah (8th century BCE) proclaimed to Israel long before Jesus. Micah said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what the LORD requires of you. Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Another religious principle that Jews and Muslims share is that God is merciful and forgiving to all  those who repent their evil ways and do good instead.

As Prophet Isaiah states: “Seek the LORD while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the LORD, who will have mercy on him; to our God, who will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7)

And as the Qur’an states: “But as for him who repents after having thus done wrong, and makes amends,behold, God will accept his repentance: verily, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” (Qur’an 5:39)

Finally, Muslims and Jews share the religious principle that ritual acts of devotion are inadequate if they do not increase our moral virtues of self control and ethical responsibilities to help other people. People may call themselves believers, but still be hypocrites in their hearts and attitudes.

Since the Hebrew Bible covers a period of more than eight centuries from the time of Prophet Moses to to the time of Prophet Ezra, the Hebrew Prophets speak more frequently about that part of the People of Israel who failed to follow the Torah of Moses. Take for example, the public actions of fasting.

The Qur’an states: “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint,” (Qur’an 2:183) and the Torah of Moses decrees for Jews a 24 hour day of fasting for repentance and forgiveness. (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27)

Seven centuries after Prophet Moses, Prophet Isaiah rebuked that part of the Jewish community who were religious hypocrites; who strictly observed the fast without being transformed by the fast into compassionate people.

“They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’ Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers.Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fistfights. Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven.

Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the Lord?

No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke.

I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard.

Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into midday [sunlight].” (Isaiah 58:3-10)  

Or as the Qur’an says succinctly: “O you who have believed, why do you say what you do not do?” Greatly hateful in the sight of Allah is that you say what you do not do. (61:2-3)

Thus the same basic message about loyalty to the one and only God who created the universe and requires all humans to live lives of kindness, modesty, faithfulness and justice is repeated from Adam to Muhammad.

The details of each religion do vary from religion to religion; but the basics always remain the same. As the great poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi taught, “Ritual prayer can be different in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih)  

This will continue until judgement day when “Allah who will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)


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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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