Three Ways To Compare Religions – OpEd


There are three ways to compare different religions. One way is the Medieval polemical style; my way is true and any differences between my way and other ways is due to the other ways being wrong/false, deviant (sectarian heresies) or due to distortions and misunderstandings. 

Al-Biruni (973-1048) is a remarkable exception. In Biruni’s well known book on the Hindu religion (with its multiple Gods and statues) he states, “This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists  (just) in order to refute them… I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are.”

The second way is the modern academic way that treats all religions as equally the result of solely human perceptions, ideas and experiences. No religion can be true, except to its believers, because all of them are solely the creation of human beings.

The third way is the least practiced way, because it requires that religious scholars have both a commitment to their own religion; and use their own religious commitment and experiences to help them understand the religious truths in other religions. This requires the ability to harmonize differences by seeing them in the larger context of Allah’s statement in the Qur’an: 

“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah you all return together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (5:48)

All monotheistic religions should be able to harmonize their philosophical differences of principle with each other because they all come from the same one source of religious inspiration. As is stated in a Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.” (Bukhari) So all prophets of monotheism have one father-Allah: but they have different mothers; mother tongues, motherlands, etc.

There is no need then for the prophets to try to harmonize the ritual or legal practices they teach their own communities because these are what makes each religious community an unique religious community: “Ritual prayer differs in every religion, but (basic) belief never changes.” (Rumi Fihi Mafih 49) 

Thus, Jews like Prophets Moses and David, and Christians like Prophets John and Jesus can be Muslim Prophets because they, and their loyal followers, all have the same basic muslim (monotheistic) beliefs; but members of a particular religious Muslim community can be Muslims only if they both believe and practice the Muslim way, because that is what makes their own religious community unique. This is also true for Jews.

That is why I think of myself as a Reform Rabbi who is a muslim Jew. Actually I am a muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of the one and only God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. 

As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant the one God made with Abraham – the first muslim Jew Hebrew, and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Prophet Abraham was the first person to be called a “Hebrew” in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 14:13). 

The term Hebrew probably comes from the verb to go over a boundary, like the Euphrates or Jordan river, or to be a migrant. Ten generations later the Philistines in Canaan used the term “Hebrews” to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel: “The Philistine commanders asked, “What about these Hebrews?” (1 Samuel 29:3); and Prophet Jonah identified himself to non-Jewish sailors as “a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). 

Prophet Abraham was the first Muslim Hebrew as Qur’an 3:67 states: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyan, “a Christian”, but rather a Haniifan” i.e. “a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel), into a great multitude of monotheists called the People of Israel-Banu Israel.

The Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1-2) and the Qur’an states: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95)

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 by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai. As the Qur’an tells us (17:110) “Say, “Call upon Allah, or call upon Ar-Rahman the Most Merciful. Whichever [name] you call – to Him belong the best names.” And do not recite your prayer [too] loudly or [too] quietly, but seek a way in between.”

This ayah is the basis of Reform Judaism. God has 99 names/appellations not only because God has a complex personality; but also because different individual people, and different peoples/tribes/nations, relate to the one God in many different ways. Thus no one should raise his voice in prayer over others, as though his prayers were better than those of others in his own community; or in other monotheistic communities.

These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century Germany. Although most Jews today 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.

I also believe that Muhammad was a prophet of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of his day; although he was 1,200 years ahead of his time. During the six centuries between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Muhammad in Yathrib, the city of Jews (Medina), almost all Jews had become Orthodox Jews. 

After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the percentage of Jews living as  minorities throughout the middle east, and in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, steadily rose higher and higher. In reaction to the danger of assimilation into the polytheistic majority, Orthodox Rabbis added many extra prohibitions to Jewish law; and most Jews became increasingly strict in the observance of the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut (dietary restrictions). 

Orthodox Rabbis did not follow the example of Muhammad as narrated by his wife ‘Aisha: Whenever Allah’s Apostle was given the choice of one of two matters, he would choose the easier of the two, as long as it was not sinful to do so, but if it was  sinful to do so, he would not approach it. ‘Aisha also said:  Whenever Allah’s Apostle ordered the Muslims to do something, he used to order them to do deeds which were easy for them to do.

Although the Torah of Moses prohibits adding to the commandments (Deuteronomy 4:2 and 13:1) over the centuries Orthodox Rabbis added many restrictions to the laws of prohibited activities under the theory of building a protective fence around the Torah’s laws. 

Also, whenever Orthodox Rabbis were in doubt if an animal had been slaughtered correctly according to Jewish law, or if one could eat a newly discovered species of bird, Orthodox Rabbis ruled it prohibited. They were not guided by Muhammad’s principle as 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.” 

Thus, if we compare Jewish and Muslim laws about daily food consumption we will find they are very similar in principle to each other, with the Orthodox restrictions being more numerous and extensive. Of the major world religions. Christianity is the only one that has no everyday dietary restrictions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism all have a religious system of daily dietary discipline. 

The general religious principle is that personal self control is best learned through overcoming the daily temptations we all have to face in satisfying our appetites and desires for food and drink. Here is a summary of the similarities and differences between Halal and Kosher.    

Halal and Kosher: “Halal” in Arabic means permissible or lawful. “Kosher” in Hebrew means proper or fit to eat. Ḥalal is a general term for all that is permissible according to Islamic law. The term designates not only foods that are permissible according to Islamic law, but also all matters of daily life. 

Kosher foods are those that conform to the regulations of Kashrut, the Orthodox Jewish dietary law. However, many Jews also use the term un-kosher to describe unfit social, moral and ethical behavior.

Slaughtering: In both Jewish and Muslim law slaughtering must be swift and at a single point on the throat; blood has to be completely drained. Halal requires a prayer before every slaughter while Orthodox Kashrut does not require a prayer before each act of slaughter.

For meat to be Halal the slaughter must be a muslim and for meat to be Kosher the animal must be slaughtered by a Jew. Although the rules about slaughter seem to be the same for both religions; it is not. The term ‘muslim’ slaughter applies also to Jewish slaughters for the Qur’an explicitly states: “The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them.” (5:5)

Thus it is clear from Sura Al-Maeda that eating meat from a Christian or Jewish butcher is lawful (Halal). However for this to be lawful the Christian or Jewish butcher must be a practicing Christian or Jew.

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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