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Islam and Religious Pluralism


One of the more contemporary problems which religions have tended to face as a criticism and as an outgrowth of contemporary Western liberalism and the desire to escape some of the intolerance of religious bigotry and violence of the past is that religions are often considered to be backwards if they promote any notion of exclusivist salvation claims. This has led to the adoption of several contemporary movements which promote the concept of religious pluralism and perennialism, the concept of universal salvation as a viable alternative understanding of the religious teachings on salvation; often one is judged as being more enlightened based upon their acceptance of the salvation of all and vice versa, others are judged as being too fundamentalist and narrow due to their belief in a more exclusivist understanding of those promised salvation. This paper shall analyse several of the core assumptions promoted by both the more exclusivist in addition to the more inclusivist camps and shall offer several boundaries based upon both traditional Shī‘ī readings of scripture in addition to rational obligations which must be fulfilled by believers vis-a-vis their tradition.

In referring to traditions and the continuation of a worldview, what is meant is the dimension of beliefs, legal norms in addition to ethical and spiritual dimensions. Whilst some may point out that there are areas in which these elements - particularly the legal rulings - have been subject to change, there are of course limits to the differences amongst jurists and it is not possible to find modernist and reformist trends amongst classical jurists within the tradition. What is meant by tradition is the ability to link ourselves as inheritors of those who perpetuate an unbroken chain which links us back to the original followers of the originators and sacred figures, which bind and taught the religious viewpoint which we claim to be following. Where the Perennialist school’s claims to be traditionist falls short of following any tradition is that these traditions hold firm claims about objective reality, and their legal traditions are often in contrast to the perennialist claims of concepts like sacred art and religious pluralism. For example, in order to be a traditional Muslim, it entails one to abhor and reject the concept of the Hypostatic Union which holds that the Prophet Jesus (a) was both fully man and fully God and possessed both natures, where as to be a traditional Catholic Christian holds this as essential doctrine. To be a traditional perennialist would require that we view both views as valid and maintain both to be divine truth claims, something which mandates as a result, the very rejection of both traditions. A lengthier critique of this perspective will follow later in this paper.

Ethical Considerations

In a world where religiously governed societies have traditionally branded heretical and excommunicated many upon the basis of a lack of adherence to orthodoxy, it is necessary to highlight before this paper discusses the theoretical implications, that there is a difference between religious pluralism in salvation and the ability to tolerate and respect the human right to choose their own religious path in this world. One must not conflate between the two discussions and one’s inability to do so is the primary stumbling block which until this point has governed and dominated any ability to have a serious conversation about these issues.

Historical Considerations

With the exception of some readings of several Sufi thinkers, who have their own philosophical assumptions about both the nature of God, revelation and existence itself - one would be extremely hard pressed to find any Muslim thinker who interpreted scripture to be as inclusive as to give a golden pass to those who have followed other religions as to grant the entirety of that religion and its adherence entry unconditionally into paradise. Such modernist readings tend to be an outgrowth of twentieth-century reformations and this ought to be taken into account.

Introduction to the Golden Question of Pluralism

When one considers the question of whether or not Islam is a pluralistic faith which entertains and encourages a belief in the salvation of numerous paths, it is necessary to ask several questions in order to advance the discussion beyond its stereotypical caricatures of both parties and their views. Let us proceed to ask several key questions which should shape the remaining duration of our dialogue with the concept of Islam and religious pluralism. There are numerous questions which could indeed be advanced by all wishing to engage with the conversation, but these are the questions which the current authors find most pertinent:

1) Does scripture allow a harmonised reading which is perennialist? That is to say, would a perennialist reading require an abandonment of tradition in order to accommodate this reading?

2) Are there any rational objections to the concept of religious pluralism and perennialism given the scope of the intellect according to the religion of Islam?

3) What are some of the outcomes of adopting a reading which normalises pluralism which may not have been fully thought through?

Section 1: The Scriptural Case for Religious Pluralism

There are numerous verses of the Qur’an which are often cited in order to justify a religiously pluralistic understanding of salvation. In order to offer a satisfactory engagement of such relevant passages we shall cite them and then assess the relevant interpretational scope of these verses and whether in isolation they actually satisfy the case of religious pluralism.

1. “O humankind, We [God] have created you male and female, and made you into communities and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest amongst you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All-knowing and All-Aware” (Qur’an 49:13)

What is to be noted about this particular verse is that despite its pluralistic outlook at the nature of humanity and their general equality, in terms of featuring numerous ethnic groups and two genders, the verse does not actually assist in promoting a pluralistic vision of salvation. The verse is actually silent about the matter and hence those who utilise it as a promise of pluralistic salvation have stretched the text beyond its text and even its context, for nothing about the verse suggests anything about salvation and anything about life after death.

2. “Surely this community of yours is one community, and I am your Lord; so worship me” (Qur’an 21:92).

Even more unique is this usage of 21:92, which by no means affirms plurality in salvation but at best conceptualises the Islamic concept of a community inclusive of those in a covenant with Muslims, but not necessarily adhering to the Islamic faith (as was the case with the Covenant of Medina).

3. “Say: we believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them and to Him [God] do we submit” (Qur’an, 3:84).

This verse highlights the Qur’anic injunction that believers are to believe in all of the Prophets, and that which was revealed to the Prophets, in fact, as opposed to serving the agenda of those who promote religious pluralism, it actually demonstrates the exact opposite. The Qur’anic polemic against those who belonged to previous communities under the Monotheist Abrahamic message is actually that they ought to believe in all of the Prophets, hence if they were Jews, the Qur’an reasons that they ought to believe in the Prophet Jesus and Muhammad and if they are Christians that they ought to accept Muhammad and not reject him just like others rejected Jesus. The verse is important in reminding the believers that whilst your communities have traditionally rejected Ismail (Ishmael), he ought to be accepted as well.

4. “And if you [Muhammad] are in doubt concerning that which We [God] reveal to you, then question those who read the scripture [that was revealed] before you” (Qur’an 10:94).

It is difficult to see how this verse which is cited by Christian polemicists and Muslim pluralists alike actually demonstrates the case that the entirety of their religion is valid and hence guarantees for them salvation, there are several understandings which could be taken from this verse, namely: a) The Muslims doubted that the Qur’an was from God due to several concepts they were unfamiliar with, therefore the Qur’an addressed them and asked them to refer to the previous communities to observe that such concepts were not new in the Abrahamic revelation (thus affirming that at least part of the scripture amongst the Hijazi Christian and Jewish community at the time of the Prophet was accurate).

b) The Muslims doubted that the Qur’an was from God due to several concepts they were unfamiliar with, therefore the Qur’an addressed them and asked them to refer to the previous communities to observe that such concepts were not new in the Abrahamic revelation (thus affirming that perhaps all of the scripture amongst the Hijazi Christian and Jewish community at the time of the Prophet was accurate)

Note that according to possibility one, it does not necessitate religious pluralism since:

a) Affirming part of the scripture amongst Jews and Christians in the Hijaz does not afford salvation by necessity to Jews and Christians who were practicing a form of Christianity in the Hijaz in the 1st Century of Islam, it merely affirms they had an accurate portion of Scripture.

b) Even if it did affirm that their entire religion was therefore correct then this still would not do anything more than demonstrate that those forms of Judaism and Christianity as practiced in that time and place were accurate.

c) At the very hardest stretch of hermeneutical gymnastics this at best would offer a salvation for those Jews and Christians who do not violate other Qur’anic injunctions of disbelief and not offer a holisitic account of broad religious pluralism outside the boundaries of Abrahamic monotheism, since the verse mentions nothing about other faiths, nor were any other faiths present in the Hijaz when the verse was revealed.

5. “And argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say we believe in that which has been revealed to us and to you; and our God and your God is one and unto Him we submit” (Qur’an 29:46).

This verse clearly merely refines the way in which Muslims can argue and dispute with Jews and Christians, it offers nothing more than an affirmation of a major religious commonality namely that we share the same general conception of Allah and submit to the same God generally.

6. “Some of the People of the Book are a nation upstanding: they recite the Signs of God all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration. They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and they hasten to do good works. They are in the ranks of the righteous.” (Qur’an 3:113-114)

This verse at best affirms that it is possible for some non-Muslims from the people of the Book (Jews, Christians and Sabians) who follow the aforementioned Qur’anic injunctions to enter into Paradise, and indeed there are many different divisions of those who call themselves Jews and Christians so it is difficult to pinpoint how inclusive this verse is actually being. On the assumption that it affirms all of those Jews and Christians who do not violate Qur’anic injunctions of disbelief, then the verse still does not allow for the huge generalisation that all religions are saved.

7. “And if they (disbelievers) dispute with you, you tell them that God knows best about what you do. Only God will judge among you on the Day of Resurrection in respect of what you differed” (22:68–9)

The above verse merely defers judgement between the believers and disbelievers to Allah who shall ultimately judge over all of us. This verse being cited is largely irrelevant given that all Muslims - no matter how exclusivist - ultimately believe that every individual will be judged by Allah on the day of Judgement.

8. “On the Day of Judgment, God will most certainly judge among those who believe, and those who became Jews, the Sabaeans, Christians, Magians and those who associate other deities with God. Surely, God watches over everything” (22:17) Again, this verse does not actually justify any form of religious pluralism given that all humans will be judged according to Islamic theology including atheists, does this fact now mean that Atheists should be considered partners in salvation according to Islamic theology?

9. And they say no one shall enter paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian. Such is their wishful thinking! Say: cite your authority if you speak the truth. Nay, whosoever surrenders his whole being unto God while doing good, his reward is with his Lord: and all such need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve. (2:111-112)

This verse is one of the clearest and strongest verses utilised by religious pluralists to justify their reading of the Qur’an, it is normally unpacked and elaborated upon in the following manner:

a) Jews and Christians were claiming they alone have an exclusive right to salvation and the Qur’an mocks their claim and falsifies it

b) Muslims likewise make a similar claim about exclusive salvation

c) Therefore, they also fall under a violation of Qur’anic principles and are condemned by the Qur’an

In order to understand the folly of this claim it is necessary to understand the following, if person x makes a claim about himself and that claim is false, the falsity of his claim about himself does not entail that whoever else makes that claim is also a liar. Therefore, the verse cannot actually be taken to demonstrate that all religions are promised paradise. At best the verse demonstrates that we as Muslims should not have the audacity to blanket label all individuals as being doomed for the hellfire nor have the audacity to claim for ourselves certain salvation beyond the mercy of Allah.

10. Verily, those who have attained faith in this Divine writ (the Qur'an), as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabeans - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62) and (5:69)

It is interesting to note that this verse has never been understood by Muslims in the early centuries regardless of sect to refer to universal salvation of the all of the above faith groups, however that being said, even if we are to concede that this verse offers a general plurality, one must be careful to note that the above faith groups have numerous different individuals and hence, the ultimate goal of those who try to open the doors of heaven to all Christians and Jews ought to therefore attempt to understand what a Jew, Christian and Sabean are according to the Qur’anic definition. Ultimately, the verse falls short of offering universal salvation to all those religions which fall out of these Abrahamic faiths.

11. And yet before this there was the revelation of Moses, a guide and a (sign of God's) Grace; and this (the Qur'an) is a Divine writ, confirming the truth (of the Torah) in the Arabic tongue, to warn those who are bent on evil doing, and (to bring) a glad tiding to the doers of good; for behold who say, “Our Sustainer is God” and thereafter stand firm (in their faith) -- no fear need they have. And neither shall they grieve: it is they who are destined for paradise, therein to abide as a reward for all that they have done. (46:12-14)

The above verse affirms Allah’s role in revealing scriptures to mankind and therefore the promise of his covenant with all of those who followed his divinely revealed messages, and of course, crucially their attributes. Therefore, the discussion which must be had is, are the contemporary followers of these religions actually still following those divinely revealed scriptures? Do they fall under these definitions and once more if they do, how is this verse being advanced to include more than merely the believers in the Abrahamic faiths?

12. And, behold, among the followers of earlier revelations there are indeed such as (truly) believe in God and that which has been bestowed from on high upon you as well as that which has been bestowed upon them. Standing in awe of God, they do not barter away God's messages for a trifling gain. They shall have their reward with their Sustainer -- for behold God is swift in reckoning! (3; 199)

This final verse which is of the popularly cited verses affirms once more that those who followed these previous revelations and affirm the divine nature of such revelations are also to affirm the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation namely the Qur’an and his Prophethood. Far from offering a proof for inclusive pluralistic salvation, it offers a description of what a loyal believer from the previous covenants ought to look like after the Prophet Muhammad (p) is shown to him.

Scriptural Passages Which Do Not Accord Well with Pluralistic Readings of Scripture

Whilst it was seen that the vast majority of verses cited by the pluralist camp certainly do not affirm the broad category claims that they often make in regards to collective universal salvation, it is necessary to also consider the plethora of references which seem to completely undermine the case of religious pluralistic salvation, because it is unfair for either camp to engage in an atomistic reading of scripture.

1. He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers. [3:85]

2. The [true] religion in Allah’s sight is Islam. [3:19]

The above two verses in the third chapter of the Qur’an are quite clear that Islam is the religion in the eyes of Allah and that it is the truth. Accordingly, this would mean that one ought to follow Islam. If some such as the contemporary academics like Sachedina are to argue that the term Islam is used as a verb here as opposed to a noun namely ‘submission’ is the only true way according to Allah, this still does not accord with the pluralistic reading as according to all, not every religion could ever be classed as submitting to Allah.

3. Say: ‘O Mankind! Truly I am the Messenger of Allah to you all.’ [7:158]

The above verse makes clear that Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah is minimally sent to all as a messenger, therefore the correct way to engage with a messenger is to accept him, of course there are a plethora of factors involved such as individuals not being convinced or being presented with the proofs or even claim of the messenger Muhammad but those are exceptions to the actual rule presented in the verse and shall be discussed, the verse definitely does not accord for those who deny the claims of the Prophet which is a logical necessity for many of the world religions today by affirming claims which the Prophet openly denied.