Towards An Islamic Theory of Meta-Religion

The relation of Islam to the other religions has been established by God in His revelation, the Qur’an. No Muslim therefore may deny it; since for him the Qur’an is the ultimate religious authority. Muslims regard the Qur’an as God’s own word verbatim, the final and definitive revelation of His will for all space and time, for all mankind.1

The only kind of contention possible for the Muslim is that of exegetical variation. But in this realm, the scope of variation is limited in two directions. First, continuity of Muslim practice throughout the centuries constitutes an irrefutable testament to the meanings attributed to the Qur’anic verses. Second, the methodology of Muslim orthodoxy in exegesis rests on the principle that Arabic lexicography, grammar, and syntax, which have remained frozen and in perpetual use by the millions ever since their crystallization in the Qur’an leave no contention without solution. These facts explain the universality with which the Qur’anic principles were understood and observed, despite the widest possible variety of ethnic cultures, languages, races, and customs characterizing the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, and from Russia and the Balkans to the heart of Africa.

As for the non-Muslims, they may contest the principles of Islam. They must know, however, that Islam does not present its principles dogmatically, for those who believe or wish to believe, exclusively. It does so rationally, critically. It comes to us armed with logical and coherent arguments, and expects our acquiescence on rational, and hence necessary, grounds. It is not legitimate for us to disagree on the relativist basis of personal taste, or that of subjective experience.

We propose to analyze Islam’s ideational relation in three stages: that which pertains to Judaism and Christianity, that which pertains to the other religions, and that which pertains to religion as such, and hence to all humans, whether they belong to any or no religion.

A. Judaism and Christianity

Islam accords to these two religions special status. First, each of them is the religion of God. Their founders on earth, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, are the prophets of God. What they have conveyed — the Torah, the Psalms, the Evangel (gospels) — are revelations from God. To believe in these prophets, in the revelations they have brought, is integral to the very faith of Islam.2 To disbelieve in them, nay to discriminate among them, is apostasy. “Our Lord and your Lord is indeed God, the One and Only God.” God described His Prophet Muhammad and his followers as “believing all that has been revealed from God”; as “believing in God, in His angels, in His revelations and Prophets”; as not-distinguishing among the Prophets of God.Qur’an 2:285

Arguing with Jews and Christians who object to this self-identification and claim an exclusivist monopoly on the former prophets, the Qur’an says: “You claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and their tribes were Jews or Christians [and God claims otherwise]. Would you claim knowledge in these matters superior to God’s?”3 “Say, [Muhammad], We believe in God, in what has been revealed by Him to us, what has been revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the tribes; in what has been conveyed to Moses, to Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord.”4 “We have revealed [Our revelation) to you [Muhammad] as We did to Noah and the Prophets after him, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, Solomon, and David.”5 “It is God indeed, the living and eternal One, that revealed to you [Muhammad] the Book [i.e., the Qur’an confirming the previous revelations. For it is He Who revealed the Torah and the Gospels as His guidance to mankind. … Who revealed the Psalms to David.”6 “Those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], those who follow the Jewish [scriptures], and the Sabians and the Christians — all those who believe in God and in the Day of Judgment, and have done good work — will receive their due reward from God. They have no cause to fear, nor shall they grieve.”7

The honor with which Islam regards Judaism and Christianity, their founders and scriptures, is not courtesy but acknowledgment of religious truth. Islam sees them in the world not as “other views” which it has to tolerate, but as standing de jure, as truly revealed religions from God. Moreover, their legitimate status is neither sociopolitical, nor cultural or civilizational, but religious. In this, Islam is unique. For no religion in the world has yet made belief in the truth of other religions a necessary condition of its own faith and witness.

Consistently, Islam pursues this acknowledgment of religious truth in Judaism and Christianity to its logical conclusion, namely, self-identification with them. Identity of God, the source of revelation in the three religions, necessarily leads to identity of the revelations and of the religions. Islam does not see itself as coming to the religious scene ex nihilo but as reaffirmation of the same truth presented by all the preceding prophets of Judaism and Christianity. It regards them all as Muslims, and their revelations as one and the same as its own. Together with Hanifism, the monotheistic and ethical religion of pre-Islamic Arabia, Judaism, Christianity and Islam constitute crystallizations of one and the same religious consciousness whose essence and core is one and the same.8 The unity of this religious consciousness can easily be seen by the historian of civilization concerned with the ancient Near East.9 It is traceable in the literature of these ancient peoples and is supported by the unity of their physical theater or geography, in their languages (for which they are called “Semitic”), and in the unity of artistic expression.

This unity of the religious consciousness of the Near East consists of five dominant principles that characterize the known literatures of the peoples of this region. They are: 1) the ontic disparateness of God, the Creator, from His creatures, unlike the attitudes of ancient Egyptians, Indians, or Chinese, according to which God or the Absolute is immanently His own creatures; 2) the purpose of man’s creation is neither God’s self-contemplation nor man’s enjoyment, but unconditional service to God on earth, His own “manor”; 3) the relevance of Creator to creature, or the will of God, is the content of revelation and is expressed in terms of law, of oughts and moral imperatives; 4) man, the servant, is master of the manor under God, capable of transforming it through his own efficacious action into what God desires it to be; and 5) man’s obedience to and fulfillment of the divine command results in happiness and felicity, and its opposite in suffering and damnation, thus coalescing worldly and cosmic justice together.

The unity of “Semitic” religious and cultural consciousness was not affected by intrusion of the Egyptians10 in the days of their empire (1465-1165 B.C.), nor by the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete?), nor by the Hittites, Kassites, or “People of the Mountains” (the Aryan tribes?), who were all semiticized and assimilated, despite their military conquests.11 Islam has taken all this for granted. It has called the central religious tradition of the Semitic peoples “Hanifism” and identified itself with it. Unfortunately for the early Muslim scholars who benefited from this insight as they labored, the language, histories, and literature furnished by archeology and the disciplines of the ancient Near East were not yet available. Hence they scrambled after the smallest bits of oral tradition, which they systematized for us under the tide of “History of the Prophets.” In reading their materials, we must remember, however, that the accurate-knowledge (Abraham, of Julius Caesar, of Amr ibn al As12, and of Napoleon) about the Sphinx or the pyramids of Egypt, for instance, was equal i.e., nil.

The Islamic concept of “Hanif” should not be compared to Ka Rahner’s “anonymous Christians.” “Hanif” is a Qur’anic category not the invention of a modern theologian embarrassed by his church’s exclusivist claim to divine grace. It has been operating within the Islamic ideational system for fourteen centuries. Those to whom it is attributed are the paradigms of faith and greatness the most honored representatives of religious life, not the despised though tolerated approximators of the religious ideal. Islam’s honoring of the ancient prophets and their followers is to be maintained even if the Jews and Christians stop or diminish their loyalty to them. “Worthier of Abraham are those who really follow him, this Prophet and those who believe in him.”13 In the Qur’an the Christians are exalted for their self-discipline and humility, and they are declared the closest of all believers to the Muslims. “[O Muhammad], you and the believers will find closest in love and friendship those who say ‘We are Christians,’ for many of them are ministers and priests who are truly humble?”14 If despite all this commendation of them, of their prophets, and of their scriptures, Jews and Christians would persist in opposing and rejecting the Prophet and his followers, God commanded all Muslims to call the Jews and Christians in these words: “O People of the Book, come now with us to rally around a fair and noble principle common to both of us, that all of us shall worship and serve none but God, that we shall associate naught with Him, and that we shall not take one another as lords beside God. But if they still persist in their opposition, then warn them that We shall persist in our affirmation.”15

Evidently, Islam has given the maximum that can ever be given to another religion. It has acknowledged as true the other religion’s prophets and founders, their scriptures and teaching. Islam has declared its God and the God of the religions of Jews and Christians as One and the same. It has declared the Muslims the assistants, friends, and supporters of the adherents of the other religions, under God. If, after all this, differences persist, Islam holds them to be of no consequence. Such differences must not be substantial. They can be surmounted and resolved through more knowledge, good will, and wisdom. Islam treats them as domestic disputes within one and the same religious family. And as long as we both recognize that God alone is Lord to each and every one of us, no difference and no disagreement is beyond solution. Our religious, cultural, social, economic, and political differences may all be composed under the principle that God alone – not any one of us, not our passions, our egos, or our prejudices – is God.

B. The Other Religions

Islam teaches that the phenomenon of prophecy is universal; that it has taken place throughout all space and time. “Every human,” the Qur’an affirms, “is responsible for his own personal deeds. On the Day of Judgment, We shall produce publicly the record of such deeds and ask everyone to examine it, because it alone will be the basis of reckoning. Whoever is rightly guided so to his own credit; whoever errs does so to his own discredit. There is no vicarious guilt; and We shall not condemn [i.e., We shall not judge] until We had sent a prophet.”16 It follows from God’s absolute justice that He would hold nobody responsible unless His law has been conveyed, promulgated, and is known. Such conveyance and/or promulgation are precisely the phenomenon of prophecy. The same principle was operative in the ancient Near East, where the states carved their laws in stone stelae that they erected everywhere for people to read. Ignorance of the divine law is indeed an argument when it is not the effect of unconcern or neglect; and it is always an attenuating factor. Being absolutely just, as well as absolutely merciful and forgiving, God, Islam holds, left no people without a prophet to teach them the divine law. “There is no people,” the Qur’an asserts, “but a warner/prophet has been sent to them.”17 Some of these prophets are widely known; others are not. So neither the Jewish nor the Christian nor the Muslim ignorance of them implies the non-existence. “We have indeed sent prophets before you [Muhammad]. About some of them We have informed you. About others We have not.”18 Thus the whole of mankind, past and present, is capable of religious merit and felicity as well as demerit and damnation, because of the universality of prophecy.

As Islam conceives it, the divine system is one of perfect justice. Universalism and absolute egalitarianism are constitutive of it. Hence, the phenomenon of prophecy not only must needs be universally present but also its content must be absolutely the same. If different in each case, the universalism of the phenomenon would have little effect. Therefore Islam teaches that the prophets of all times and places have taught one and the same lesson; that God has not differentiated among His messengers. “We have sent to every people a messenger,” the Qur’an affirms, “to teach them that worship and service are due to God alone; that evil must be avoided [and the good pursued].”19 “We have sent no messenger except to convey [the divine message] in the tongue of his own people, to make it [the content] clearly comprehensible to them.”20 With this reassurance, no human has any excuse for failing to acknowledge God, or to obey His law. “[We have sent to every people] prophets to preach and to warn, so that no human may have an argument against God’s judgment of that individual’s deeds].”21

Islam thus lays the ground for a relation with all peoples, not only with Jews and Christians whose prophets are confirmed in the Qur’an. Having once been the recipients of revelation, and of a revelation that is identical to that of Islam, the whole of mankind may be recognized by Muslims as equally honored, as they are, by virtue of revelation and also as equally responsible, as they are, to acknowledge God as the only God and to offer Him worship, service, and obedience to His eternal laws.

If, as Islam holds, all prophets have conveyed one and the same message, whence the tremendous variety of the historical religions of mankind? To this question, Islam furnishes a theoretical answer and a practical one.

1) Islam holds that the messages of all prophets had but one essence and core composed of two elements. First is tawhid, or the acknowledgment that God alone is God and that all worship, service, and obedience are due to Him alone. Second is morality, which the Qur’an defines as service to God, doing good, and avoiding evil.

Each revelation had come figurized in a code of behavior particularly applicable to its people, and hence relevant to their historical situation and conditions. This particularization does not affect the essence or core of the revelation. If it did, God’s justice would not be absolute and the claims of universalism and egalitarianism would fall to the ground. Particularization in the divine law must therefore affect the “how” of service, not its purpose or “what,” the latter being always the good, righteousness, justice, and obedience to God. If it ever affects the “what,” it must do so only in those areas that are non-constitutive and hence unimportant and accidental. This principle has the special merit of rallying humanity, whether potentially or actually, around common principles of religion and morality, and of removing such principles from contention, and from relativism and subjectivism.22

There is therefore a legitimate ground for the religious variety in history. In His mercy, God has taken due account of the particular conditions of each people. He has revealed to them all a message that is the same in essence; but He has conveyed to each one of them His law in a prescriptive form relevant to their particular conditions, to their own grade of development on the human scale. And we may conclude that such differences are de jure because they do not affect the essence.

2) The second cause of religious diversity is not as benevolent as the first. The first, we have seen, is divine; the second, human. To acknowledge and do the will of God conveyed through revelation is not always welcomed by all people. Some with vested interests may not agree with the divine dispensations, and numerous circumstances favor such disagreement.

First, divine revelation has practically always and everywhere advocated charity and altruism, ministering by the rich to the material needs of the poor. The rich do not always acquiesce in this moral imperative and may incline against it.

Second, divine revelation is nearly always in favor of ordered social living. It would counsel obedience of the ruled to the law and self-discipline. But it always does so under the assumption of a rule of justice, which may not always be agreeable to rulers and kings who seek to have their own way. Their will power may incline them against the social ethic of revelation.

Third, divine revelation always reminds man to measure himself by reference to God and His law, not by reference to himself. But man is vain; and self-adoration is for him a constant temptation.

Fourth, revelation demands of humans that they discipline their ins0

24/07/2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: