Self-righteous arrogance is a sin, and religious leaders’ self-righteous arrogance is an awful sin.
One good religious lesson is that humans do not really know what their future will be: only God knows. As the Qur’an states: ‘And they (people) plan, and Allah plans. And Allah is the best of planners.” (8:30 & 3:54) Or as a Yiddish (east European German-Jewish language) proverb quips: “Humans plan decisively, and God laughs foresightedly.”
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 sacred scripture and traditions, from the sacred scriptures and traditions of other of monotheistic religions.
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. But tragically, in the Middle Ages, almost all readers thought of each revelation as a zero-sum sport like tennis; rather than a multiple-win, cooperative sport like mountain climbing.
As a rabbi who believes that Prophet Muhammad confirmed the Torah of Prophet Moses; I believe that the One God is the source of all Divine inspiration. My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures cannot in reality oppose one another because they all come from the same and only source.
Prophets are all brothers; it is as if they have the same “father” (God) and different “mothers” (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras). 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.
All of these factors produce different rituals and legal systems, but moral theology can differ only in small and unessential details. Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where sacred Scriptures differ they do not nullify each other; they only cast additional light on each other.
A good example of this is the narrative about the meeting between Prophet Musa and Al-Khidr which is related in Qur’an 18: 60-82, and expanded upon in numerous hadith.
One day, Prophet Musa delivered an impressive sermon to Banu Israel (the children of Israel), and all the Jewish people who heard it were deeply moved. Someone asked Prophet Musa: “O Messenger of Allah, is there another man on earth more learned than you?”
Prophet Musa replied: “No!” — because Allah had not only given him the power of miracles, and honored him with the Torah, but had also granted to him alone the supreme privilege of speaking directly to God. In fact, the Qur’an states that Musa was one of the five great prophets and messengers of Allah.
However, Allah admonished Prophet Musa and revealed to him that no human being could know all there is to know. There would always be another with even more knowledge, and still, someone else who knew what others did not. So Prophet Musa asked Allah: “O Allah, where is this man? I would like to meet him and learn from him.”
Prophet Musa also asked for a sign to identify this person. Allah told Prophet Musa he would find this wise man at the junction of two seas. Allah instructed Prophet Musa to take a live fish in a water-filled vessel and where the fish disappeared, there he would find the man he sought.
Musa set out on his journey, accompanied by a young assistant, Yusha bin Nun, who carried the vessel with the fish. When they reached the junction of two seas, they stopped to rest. As they slept, the fish jumped out of the vessel and fell into a channel leading to the sea and made its way out to the sea. Prophet Musa’s assistant forgot to tell him that the fish had escaped. When they woke up refreshed, they recommenced their journey. Thus, they passed by the place where Prophet Musa would have met Al-Khidr.
Later on, in their journey, exhausted and hungry, Prophet Musa asked his assistant to bring their meal to satisfy their hunger and feel refreshed. Yusha bin Nun then recalled that he had forgotten about the fish. So they retraced their steps and upon coming to the designated place, were amazed to behold an incredible tunnel fashioned out of the water.
Prophet Musa realized this was the sign by which they were to discover Al-Khidr. Indeed, there they found Al-Khidr, whom Allah had planned for Prophet Musa to meet.
The name Al–Khidr literally means ‘The Green One’. It was a title derived from the word khadra which translates to ‘green.’ It was said that Al-Khidr had the special prowess to turn pale, withered, barren land into fertile, productive, green land. Al-Khidr is believed by most Islamic scholars to have been a prophet, perhaps Elisha (Qur’an 6:86 & 38:48) who was a disciple of Elijah (Qur’an 37:123-131) who according to Ka’b al-Ahbar is still alive.
The Torah of Moses: (Genesis 1:11), states that trees were created on the third day of Creation, the only day which was blessed twice by God; and (Leviticus 19:23) stipulates: “When you come to the Land of Israel, you shall plant fruit trees.” and (Deuteronomy 20:19/20) commands: “When you besiege a city… you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; you may eat from them, but do not cut them down… Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down….”
Thus we find that both Islamic and Jewish tradition relate the same important teaching: “The Prophet said: “If the Hour (of judgement) is about to be established, and one of you was holding a palm sapling; let him use even the last second before the Hour is established to plant the sapling.” (Reported by Ahmad and Al-Bukhan on the authority of Anas in Al Adab Al-Mufrad, see also Sahih Al- Jami’ Al-Saghir, No.1424)
And Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught, “If you should be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah is coming; first plant the sapling, then go out and greet him.” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b) Elijah is a forerunner of the Messiah/Mahdi and Judgement Day. Prophet Malachi says: “Behold, I will send you prophet Elijah…and he will turn the hearts of parents towards children; and the hearts of children towards parents.” (Malachi 3:17)).
So Prophet Musa approached Al-Khidr and said; “I have come to you so that you may teach me some of that knowledge which you have been taught.” In this way, Prophet Musa asked Al-Khidr to teach him humility and wisdom that Allah had granted to him, as he hoped to be guided by this knowledge to perform good and righteous deeds.
Al-Khidr said, “O Musa! I have some of Allah’s knowledge which you do not know; and you too, have some of Allah’s knowledge which He has bestowed upon you, which I do not know.” (Bukhari) Each of us has responsibilities before Allah that others do not share.
This very important understanding is the anti-zero sum perspective that I referred to at the beginning of this essay. If even two great individual religious figures like Musa and Al-Khidr do not know the whole truth; how much more so should today’s leaders not claim to know the whole truth.