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K.N. Islam: The Qur'anic Message of Universalism and Religious Pluralism

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013

Islam is a religion that holds that peace is the summum bonum or the highest goal of man’s life and that a total surrender to the will of God is the only means of attaining that goal. Until recently, some non-Muslim scholars used the term “Muhammadanism” instead of “Islam.” “Muhammadanism” seemed to them to carry the implication of the worship of Muhammad, just as Christian and Christianity imply the worship of the Christ. The term “Islam” does not convey any such relationship; it does not point to any particular person, people or country but it is meant for all creation.

The cardinal principle of Islam is a belief in the absolute unity of God. In the very opening sura or chapter of the Qur’an,[1] God has been described as al-Rahman (the Most Merciful), al-Rahim (the Most Gracious), Rabb al-alamin (the Lord of the people). It may be mentioned here that the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament refers to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the Qur’an nowhere refers to God as the God of any particular prophet.[2] In fact, God is one and the only Creator of everything in the universe.

It is unfortunate that the teachings of the Qur’an have been misunderstood both by the critics as well as by some of the adherents of Islam. They do not know that the Qur’an advocates rational thinking, promotes scientific reasoning, abhors terrorism and condemns fanaticism and extremism. They do not know and at times they do not want to accept that the Qur’an advocates universalism and religious pluralism. The present paper is a humble endeavor to present the Qur’anic message of universalism and religious pluralism.

First of all, let us see what is meant by the term “universalism.” Universalism refers to religious, ethical and philosophical concepts with universal application or applicability. In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts that can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In the context of ethics, the term universal refers to that which is true for all individuals under similar situations. The exact meaning of the term universalism is different in different religions.[3]By universalism Islam means God’s love and concern for human beings throughout the world. Islam holds that God has sent revelations to Prophets throughout human history in order to bring peace and harmony through submission to the will of God.

Now about religious pluralism. Cultural and religious pluralism has a long history from antiquity to contemporary trends in post-modernity. The phenomenon of religious pluralism is one of the most important questions in today’s religious thought. Though quite commonly used, the term religious pluralism has several distinct meanings,[4] but the most commonly accepted view of religious pluralism is the doctrine of religious tolerance. The society in which people of different faiths and cultural heritage live together is called a pluralistic society. From the Qur’anic perspective, religious pluralism implies a society of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.

In unequivocal terms the Qur’an affirms that the message it contains is explicitly universal. Riffat Hassan, one of the prominent contemporary scholars of comparative religion, rightly claims that anyone who has read the Qur’an without bias is aware that Islam is truly universal in its ideals.[5]This is quite evident from some verses of the Qur’an.

In Sura 10:47 it is stated that God has messengers for every nation. In Sura 35:24 God says that there was never a community without any warner. Sura 38: 87 states that this divine writ is no less than a reminder to all the worlds. Sura 81:27-28 assert that this message is a reminder to all mankind, to everyone who wills to walk a straight way. The Sura Baqara states: “Beware of a Day when you will be returned to God: every soul will be paid in full for what it has earned, and no one will be wronged.” (2:281)

That the spirit of Islam is pluralistic and broad-based is evident from some verses of the Qur’an:

The (Muslim) believers, the Jews, the Christian and Sabians all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good have their rewards with their Lord. (2:62)

The (Muslim) believers, the Jews, the Sabians and the Christians those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds will have nothing to fear or to regret. (5:69)

In fact, any who direct themselves wholly to God and do good will have their reward with their Lord: no fear for them, nor will they grieve. (2:112)

The East and the West belong to God: wherever you turn, there is His Face. (2:115).

God is the Creator of the universe and He sends guidance to all humanity. That is why the Muslims are commanded by the Qur’an to affirm the divine messages given to all the previous Prophets. Muslims, as an indispensable part of their faith (Iman), are bound to affirm that they believe in God and in His angels, in His sacred Books and in His messengers, in the Day of Judgment and in the apportionment of good and evil from Him on the day of resurrection:

The messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, as do the faithful. They all believe in God, His angels, His scriptures, and His messengers. We make no distinction between any of His messengers. (2:285)

It is not only that Muslims are required to affirm the continuity of Islam with previous revelations and Prophets, they are not even allowed, under any circumstance, to make any distinction amongst them:

(So you believers) say, “We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to Him.” (2:136)

Step by step, He has sent the Scripture down to you (Prophet) with the Truth, confirming what went before: He sent down the Torah and the Gospel earlier as a guide for people and He has sent down the distinction between right and wrong. (3:3)

Say (Muhammad), “We (Muslims) believe in God and in what has been sent down to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes. We believe in what has been given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We do not make a distinction between any of the (prophet). It is to Him that we devote ourselves.” (3:84)

We have sent revelation to you (Prophet) as We did to Noah and the prophets after him, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon – to David We gave the Psalms – to other messengers We have already mentioned to you, and also to some We have not – to Moses God spoke directly – messengers bearing good news and warning, so that mankind would have no excuse before God, once the messengers had been sent: God is almighty and all wise. (4:163-165).

In matters of faith, He has laid down for you (people) the same commandment that He gave Noah, which We revealed to you (Muhammad) and which We enjoined on Abraham and Moses and Jesus: “Uphold the faith and do not divide into factions within it” – what you (Prophet) call upon the idolaters to do is hard for them; God chooses whoever He pleases for Himself and guides towards Himself those who turn to Him. (42:13)

We have sent other messengers before you – some We have mentioned to you and some We have not – sand no messenger could bring about a sign except with God’s permission. When (the Day) God ordained comes, just judgment will be passed between them: there and then, those who followed falsehood will be lost. (40:78)

It may be mentioned here that the Qur’an identifies by name some 25 prophets. Mahmoud Ayub asserts that the verse cited above implies that there is an infinite number of messengers about whom we are not informed.[6]

Islam can claim a glorious uniqueness on the issue of religious freedom. But unfortunately, Islam has been misunderstood by its critics and many of its adherents as well. There is a gulf of difference between the teachings of Islam and the dealings of some Muslims in this sensitive area. The Qur’an categorically states that there is no coercion in matters of faith: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) This verse, like many other verses in the Qur’an, guarantees freedom of religion and worship.

According to the teachings of the Qur’an, non-Muslims living in Muslim states must enjoy the freedom to follow their own faith-traditions without any kind of fear or harassment. There are many verses in the Qur’an that clearly state that the responsibility of Prophet Muhammad was not to compel anyone to believe, but to communicate the message of God:

If it had been God’s will, they would not have done so, but We have not made you their guardian, nor are you their keeper. (6:107)

Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you (Prophet) compel people to believe? (10:99)

We have not sent you (Prophet) to be their keeper: your only duty is to deliver the message. (42:48)

But if they turn away (Prophet), your only duty is to deliver the message clearly. (16:82)

About religious freedom, the Qur’an sates:

Say, Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject it do so. (18:29)

It should be remembered that the Qur’an promotes religious freedom not only of the believers in God but also of the atheists and worshipers of nature and so on: “Believers, do not revile those they call on besides God in case they, in their hostility and ignorance, revile God.” (6:108)

It should be noted here that the Qur’anic instruction, “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith,” applies not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims. The Qur’an does not prescribe any punishment for non-profession or renunciation of faith, because the decision regarding a person’s ultimate destiny in the life after death and on the Day of Judgment rests with God alone.

In the contemporary world, partly because of continued hate campaigns against Islam through electronic and printed media and partly because of certain activities of some misguided Muslims, Islam has earned an extremely bad name. Now in the Western world Muslims are branded as terrorists and killers. But if we go through the teachings of the Qur’an we can easily find rather a completely different picture of Islam and Muslims. In fact, the Qur’an upholds the sanctity and absolute value of human life:

Do not take the life God has made sacred, except by right. This is what He commands you to do so that you may use your reason. (6:151)

We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind. (5:32)

Not only does it speak about condemning terrorism, the Qur’an does not even permit harsh behavior towards anyone. In fact, the Qur’an advocates gracious conduct and tolerance towards persons who hold different religious and ethical viewpoints. This is amply evident from the following verses:

(Believers), argue only in the best way with the People of the Book, except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, “We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God are one (and the same); we are devoted to Him.” (29:46)

But if they incline towards peace, you (Prophet) must also incline towards it, and put your trust in God: He is the All Hearing, the All Knowing. (8:61)

If any one of the polytheists should seek your protection (Prophet), grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God – then take him to a safe place – for they are people with no knowledge. (9:6)

(Prophet), Call people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way, for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way and who is rightly guided. If you (people) have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate, but it is best to stand fast. (16:125-126)

Critics of Islam and some fanatic Muslims use verse 51 of Surah 5, Al-Maidah, to argue that according to this verse, Jews and Christians cannot be friends of Muslims:

O ye who believe! Take not Jews and Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily God guideth not a people unjust.

The universal approach of the Qur’an will be evident if this text is understood in relation to its context. Before we can understand the verse concerned, it is important to understand the context of the Surah and the particular situation under which this verse was revealed. It should be noted here that in the last stages of prophetic mission in Medinah, Muslims emerged as a dominant power and could set up a society of their own. Exactly at the same time, polytheists of Makkah and some Jews and Christians also established societies. In case of an armed conflict it seemed that any of them could be victorious. Under this circumstance, the hypocrites among Muslims maintained ties with Jews and Christians and supported them in secret. In fact, their support was in order to safeguard their own interests with whoever turned out to be victorious. It is in this context that verse 5:51 was revealed. The attitude of the people just mentioned has been stated in verses 5:57-58:

O you who believe! Do not take for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery and a joke, from among those who were given the Book before you and the unbelievers, and be careful (of your duty to) Allah if you are believers. And when you call to prayer they make it a mockery and a joke; this is because they are a people who do not understand.

It should be clearly evident from the above verses that the Jews and Christians mentioned above are those “who take your religion for a mockery and a joke.”

On the basis of this explanation any sensible commentator will believe that these verses should not be taken to be a general directive of Muslims’ relationship with Jews and Christians. Muslims are allowed to have non-Muslims as friends as long as they keep their own faith and commitment pure and strong.

In the beginning of the same Surah (5:5) the Qur’an has permitted a Muslim to have as his comrade in life a woman following Judaism or Christianity:

Today all good things have been made lawful for you. The food of the people of the Book is lawful for you as your food is lawful for them. So are chaste, believing women as well as chaste women of the people who were given the Scripture before you, as long as you have given them their dowries and married them, not taking them as lovers or secret mistresses.

On this issue Maulana Muhammad Ali asks a question: How could a Book that allows a man to have as his comrade in life a woman following another religion, say in the same breath that no friendly relation can be had with the followers of other religions?[7] He contends that the loving relation of husband and wife is the friendliest of all relations and, when this relation is permitted in an unambiguous term, there is not the least reason to suppose that other friendly relations are forbidden. In fact, wherever there is prohibition against making friends with other people, it relates only to the people who were at war with the Muslims:

Allah does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes and helped others to drive you out: any of you who take them as allies will truly be wrongdoers. (60:8-9)

There is one more reason for which verse 5:51 has been misunderstood. In the verse, the term Awliya is used. It is plural of Wali. According to most Muslim scholars, the correct translation of Wali is not friend. It has several meanings, including guardian, protector, patron, lord and master. Considering the context of the verse and its inner spirit many scholars are of the opinion that the correct translation of 5:57 is:

Oh you who believe! Do not take Jews and Christians as your patrons. They are patrons of their own people. He among you who will turn for patronage is one of them. Verily Allah guides not a people unjust.[8]

It may be mentioned here that in 5:82 God says that the Christians are the closest friends of the Muslims. (“You are sure to find that the closest in affection towards the believers are those who say, we are Christians for there are amongst them people devoted to learning and ascetics.”) This is the last part of the verse 5:82. It clearly proves that Christians can be the closest friends of Muslims. But the problem remains with the first part of the verse, which states that the most hostile to the Muslims are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God. (“You [Prophet] are sure that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God.”) The critics of Islam use this part of the verse to prove that the approach of the Qur’an cannot be universal. But if we carefully and objectively study the verse concerned, it will be clear that the verse is meant only for the times of war, times of no peace and no trust only. Under a normal situation there is no enmity. As a proof it may be mentioned here that during the Muslim rule in Spain and during the Abbasid rule the Jews enjoyed the maximum possible rights and opportunities. Therefore, the enmity factor in 5:82 has to be limited only to the time of war. Iftekhar H. Hai rightly remarks that the verse concerned is an advisory precaution only in the times of war, unrest or period of no peace.[9]

The Qur’an considers the diversity of peoples as well as religious pluralism as God’s Divine Plan. In the Qur’an there are references both to the unity and diversity of mankind:

People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into nations and tribes so that you should get to know one another. (49:13)

All people were originally a single community, but later they differed. If it had not been for a word from your Lord, the preordained judgement would already have been passed between them regarding their differences. (10:19)

We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (5:48)

Each community has its own direction to which it turns: race to do good deeds and wherever you are, God will bring you together.God has power to do everything. (2:148)

The Qur’an insists that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions honoring and worshiping the one and the only God:

For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another (all) monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in (all of) which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed (ere now). (22:40)

God uses human beings to uphold knowledge of Him. The Qur’an uses not only prophets but also communities to safeguard the name of God and His houses. These houses, according to this verse, include synagogues, churches, mosques and monasteries. That means, according to the Qur’an it is not only mosques that are places of worship.

A few verses of the Qur’an have been noted above where religious pluralism is explicitly affirmed. Two nearly identical verses (2:62 and 5:69), which represent the beginning and the end of Prophet Muhammad’s Medinan career, have already been cited. This fact is of crucial importance to the Qur’anic message of religious pluralism. The verses in question state that those who believe in God and the Last Day and follow righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord.

The verse mentioned in the first major Medinan Surah is repeated nearly verbatim in the next to the last major Surah revealed to the Prophet before his death. The fact that this verse occurs at the end of revelation means that both the words and the purpose of the same verse repeated twice is of immense importance. Mahmoud Ayoub asserted with emphasis that neither the words nor the purpose of these two identical verses can be said to be abrogated.[10]There are many scholars who do not accept the concept of abrogation of any verse of the Qur’an. For example, Iftikhar H. Hai holds that nothing is abrogated and that every verse can be activated.[11]

It should be noted here that what the Qur’an enjoins is acceptance and appreciation of the plurality of cultures and religions, but within the unity of faith in the one God. In this connection one should remember that pluralism does not mean a “Tower of Babel” where each individual speaks a completely different language, without any possibility of communicating with or understanding another. On the contrary, underlying religious pluralism must be the bedrock of unity of purpose and open dialogue. “From the Qur’anic point of view, this unity operates with a historical continuity of divine revelation, beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad. Although revelation ended with the Qur’an, divine guidance continues in the proper interpretation of sacred scriptures.”[12]

Starting from the early period of the Muslim Caliphate till today there have been innumerable interpreters of the verses of the Qur’an. Unfortunately, some of them have misunderstood the real meaning and spirit of some verses. At times they were even misguided and some translations are even made with certain motives. Their misguided and motivate interpretation often created misunderstanding and that went against the real spirit of the Qur’an. Their fault centers around their misperception and misunderstanding of two important verses of Sura Al-Imran:

Behold, the only true religion in sight of God is (man’s) self-surrender unto Him…. (3:19)

For, if one goes in search of a religion other than self-surrender unto God, it will never be accepted from him, and in the life to come he shall be among the lost. (3:85)

To understand the real meaning of the term islam,[13] the Qur’an is very clear in giving the definition. It means total surrender or submission to God. In fact, the art of surrender or submission to the will of God is Islam. Therefore, anybody who surrenders to God, sincerely and whole-heartedly, is a follower of Islam.[14] As used in the verses mentioned above, one must understand the meanings of the terms islam and Islam. The former clearly means total submission to or surrender to the will of God, and the latter means the legal Islamic identity of Muslims. Now, if anyone wants to hold that there is no difference between Islam as the name of an institutional religious law and islam as the total surrender to the will of God, then one must, by implication, negate the other. This will definitely create serious problems with the basic teachings of the Qur’an that all prophets from Adam to Muhammad are Muslims (42:13). Moreover, this will mean that no other institutionalized religion can be said to be acceptable to God except the legalistic and ritualistic Islam that has been practiced by Muslims for more than 1,400 years. Again, this will mean that the Qur’anic verses asserting religious pluralism and unity of faiths are nothing but empty words. Definitely, no pious Muslim or unbiased scholar on the teachings of the Qur’an will accept that.

Dr Kazi Nurul Islam is a professor of world religions at the Department of Culture and Director, Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue of the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He established both the Department and the Center at this University. He was professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy before he established the above mentioned department which first of its kind in the entire Muslim world. He devoted more than four decades to understanding many religions through his lived experience in different parts of the globe. Of all the religions, he studied Islam and Hinduism extensively. His main goal of this endeavor to learn different religions is to find out the causes of conflicts among them and find out solutions to them. He has published five books and edited four books and four journals.

1. The name Qur’an, the proper name of the Sacred Book of the Muslims, occurs several times in the Book itself. This Holy Book speaks of itself by many additional names, e.g., Al-Furqan (25:1), that which distinguishes between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong; Al-Dhikr (15:9), the Reminder or a source of eminence and glory of mankind; Al-Muhaimen (5:48) or the Guardian (of previous revelation); and Musaddiq (6:92), confirming the truth of previous revelations. Cf. Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary, Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Lahore, Inc., USA, 2002, p. 1.

2. Cf. Fathi Osman, Concept of the Qur’an, Los Angeles, California: MVI Publications, 2nd edition, 1999, p. 23.

3. For example, according to Zoroastrian tradition, universalism means to revere the wise and the righteous of all countries. Hinduism is a national religion. With the exception of Pure-Non-Dualistic Vedanta of Sankara, the Qualified Non-Dualistic Vedanta of Ramanuja and Brahma Samaj of Raja Rammohan Roy there is little scope of universalism in Hinduism. In Christianity, universalism refers to the belief that all humans can be saved through Jesus Christ and eventually come to harmony in God’s Kingdom. In the 17th and the 18th centuries, Europe and America Christian reformers came to believe in a universally loving God and felt that God would grant salvation to all human beings.

4. Cf. Diana L. Eck, “Perspective for Pluralism: Vice and Vision in the Study of Religion,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2006, pp. 1-34.

5. Riffat Hasan, “Trialogue among the Abrahamic Faiths,” in Global Dialogue, Center for World Dialogue, Vol. 2. Number 1, Philadelphia, PA, 2000, p. 49.

6. Mahmoud Ayub, “Islam and the Challenge of Religious Pluralism,” in Global Dialogue, Vol. 2, Number 1, 2000, p. 56.

7. Maolana Muhammad Ali, op. cit., p. 41.

8. Cf. Mozammeal H. Siddique, en. allexperts. Com/q/Islam-947/Holy Quran-5-51 htm.

9. Iftekhar H. Hai “Pre-requisite to understanding the Qur’an” /Divinity school_Flbts, 2005.pdf.

10. Op. cit., p. 61.

11. Mahmoud Ayub, op. cit, p. 58.

12. Ibid., p. 275.

13. The Qur’an is very clear in giving the definition of the word Islam. It means total surrender or submission to God. In fact, the art of surrender or submission to the will of God is Islam. Therefore, anyone who surrenders to God, sincerely and whole-heartedly, is a follower of Islam.

14. Cf. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an: translated and explained, Dar Al- Andalus, Gibraltar, 1997, pp. 69 and 80; M.A.S. Abdul Halem translated these two verses as follows: “True Religion, in God’s eyes is islam: devotion to Him alone”; “If anyone seeks a religion other than islam: complete devotion to God, it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in hereafter.” See also The Qur’an, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 35 and 40-41:Abdullah Yusuf Ali, one of the most authentic translators of the Qur’an has translated the term islam as submission to Allah, and not as the formal body of religious beliefs by the same name; and The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, Lahore, 1934, Vol. 1, pp. 126 and 145. Mahmoud M. Ayub, one of the most dependable (Arab-American) Muslim scholars of the contemporary world, did not use the uppercase “I” while translating these two verses, because he wished to avoid creating confusion between islam as submission to the will of God and Islam as the name of a religion. Op. cit., p. 61.