One might think that the polytheistic religions in Asia, Africa and the Americas would be more likely to wage war with each other than the three monotheistic religions that all look back to Abraham, “whom God chose to be His friend” (Qur’an 4:125 & Isaiah 41:8); but this is not the case.
Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean have been the stage for most of the ‘Holy Wars’ between religious sects within monotheistic Christianity, and later between Christian and Muslim monotheists; who killed one another in the name of the One True God.
The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, that slaughtered 20-30,000 French Protestants during the French Wars of Religion, and the thirty year war in 17th century Germany which killed one third of the civilian population, were bloodier than all the polytheistic religious conflicts in Asia, Africa and the Americas prior to the 20th century. How can this be explained?
The Qur’an declares that Allah could have made all of us monotheists, a single religious community, but (didn’t) in order to test our commitment to the religion that each of us have been given by God.
“If Allah had 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 which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)
This means that religious pluralism is the will of God. Yet for centuries many believers in one God have chided and depreciated each other’s religions, and some believers have even resorted to forced conversions, expulsions, inquisitions and massacres to spread their faith. Yet monotheists all pray to the same God, and all prophets of monotheistic faiths are inspired by the same God.
So how did this intolerance come about, and how can we eliminate religious intolerance from the Abrahamic religions. Greek philosophy, with its requirement that truth, God, and the stars in the heavens must be unchanging and universal, influenced most teachers of sacred scripture during Medieval times to believe that religion was a zero sum game; the more truth I find in your scripture the less truth there is in mine.
Instead of understanding differing texts as complementary, they made them contradictory and declared the other religion’s sacred text to be false became a zero sum game: anything positive said about another religion was seen as weakening your own side. The goal was not to modestly try to harmonize various religious perspectives of the one and only God; but to self-righteously exaggerate religious differences, well beyond any reasonable understanding of the two sides.
In a zero sum game like Go or chess there is only one possible winner. When applied to religion it means that any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This view was the result of the specific influence of Aristotle, and Greek philosophy’s general emphasis on the logic of the excluded middle. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradicted one another, one or both of them must be false. They cannot both be true.
But if one believes that there is only one God who is revealed by many different inspired prophets, then we should be able to learn more about God’s will and gain insights into our own unique revelation, from other revelations of that one God. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture.
However, in the Middle Ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis; rather than a multiple-win, co-operative sport like mountain climbing. This would mean that if my religion is true, yours must be false. In modern terms, light could not be both a particle and a wave. Yet we now know that light is indeed both a particle and a wave, and at the same time.
If religion is to promote peace in our pluralistic world we must reject the zero sum game ideology of Aristotle’s universal unchanging Truth, and develop the pluralistic teachings that already exist within our sacred scriptures. After all “all prophets are brothers. They have the same father (God) but different mothers (mother tongues, motherlands and unique historical circumstances that account for all the differences in their scriptures).
Note that the Arabic word umm for mother, derives from the same root as the word ummah, i.e. a mother nation/tribe, a mother tongue, a motherland.
“Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all people to Jesus, son of Mary. Prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.” (Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith #652) And: “Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion however; is one“. (Muslim, Book #030, Hadith #5836)
Religious pluralism as the will of God is very different from religious, moral or cultural relativism. Relativism teaches that all values and standards are subjective, and therefore there is no higher spiritual authority available for setting ethical standards or making moral judgements.
Thus, issues of justice, truth or human rights are, like beauty, just in the eye of the beholder. Most people, especially those who believe that One God created all of us, refuse to believe that ethics and human rights are simply a matter of taste. Religious pluralism as the will of God is the opposite of cultural or philosophical relativism.
The fundamental idea supporting religious pluralism is that religious people need to embrace humility in many areas of religion. All religions have always taught a traditional anti self centered personal egoism type of humility. Religious pluralism also opposes a religious, philosophical, and self righteous intellectual egoism that promotes a tendency to turn our legitimate love for our own prophet and Divine revelation into universal truths that we fully understand and know how to apply.
Religious pluralism teaches that finite humans, even the most intelligent and pious of them, can not fully understand everything the way the infinite One does. This is true, for every human being, even for God’s messengers themselves. When prophet Moses.“who God spoke with face to face, as a person speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11) asks to see God face to face, he is told, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live.” (33:20)
Similarly, in the Qur’an prophet Jesus admits to God, “You know everything that is within myself, whereas I do not know what is within Yourself”. (7:116) In the New testament when prophet Jesus is asked, in private, by his disciples, “What will be the sign for your coming (back) and the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
Jesus warns his disciples about all kinds of upheavals and false Messiahs that will come. Then Jesus concludes by saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the son: only the Father”. (24:36)
A similar statement was made by prophet Muhammad when he was asked, “Tell me about the Hour”. Muhammad replied: “The one questioned about it, knows no better than the questioner.” (Muslim book 1:1&4) Prophet Muhammad taught the general principle of epistemological humility to his followers when he said, “I am no novelty among the messengers. I do not know what will be done to me, or to you.” (Qur’an 46:9)
If, even the messengers of God humbly admit that they do not know the answers to many questions, how much more should we ordinary believers refuse to claim to know it all. When it comes to religious truths, we can see them, but only in part. The part we can see derives from the prophets and the holy scriptures that Jews, Christians and Muslims have been blessed with. As the Qur’an declares, “Every people has a direction towards which they turn; so compete together wherever you may be as if in a race towards all that is good. Surely Allah will bring you all together.” (2:148)
Religions are to compete with one another, but not by claiming to be in possession of a better or higher truth. Religions should compete by educating their followers to give charity, to love kindness and mercy, and do good deeds. This is a test of the commitment and effectiveness of each communities leaders, and the sincerity and devotion of each religion’s followers.
Competing in doing good is a test for us as believers. It is not a test for determining which religion has the truest truth. This is why God made us into many nations, and many religions.
“For each We have appointed a clear way of life and a comprehensive system. If Allah had so willed He would surely have made you a single community: but (didn’t) in order to test you by what (Scripture) He granted you. So compete together as if competing in good works. All of you will (ultimately) return to Allah and then He will make you understand what you have differed about.” (5:48)
Only after resurrection, at the time of final judgements, will humans be able to understand the full meaning of their various sacred scriptures, and the truths contained in the differences between them. In this world, God has determined that religious humility must rule.