When Muslim scholars issue a Fatwa (a religious ruling) it is traditional for them to include the statement “but only God knows”; meaning that I think this ruling is the right understanding of the issue, but I may be wrong; only God really knows. This very admirable statement of humility, joined together with a religious ruling, is a spiritual way to reduce the human tendency of arrogance to corrupt those who think they know the answer to every question; and who occupy positions of great power, piety or prestige.
If this humility about religious knowledge is admirable for religious leaders, how much more so is it a necessity for all their followers. In other words, “To know when one does not know; is best. To think one knows when one does not know: is a dire disease.” (Tao Te Ching 71) Yet in the heat of battle between contending sects and/or religions, even leaders of great knowledge and piety often make it sound like their understanding is the only valid one; and that all those who disagree with them are heretics, apostates or total unbelievers, lost in lies and delusions.
One might think this is not a great problem in the case of different monotheistic revealed religions, since they all agree that there is only one God; who is concerned with all human beings and wants humans to do good. What could prevent that One God from inspiring different revelations by different prophets to different peoples. Yet, in the Middle Ages, politics led to religious competition, which led to religious conflict, and even persecution and warfare; all in the name of God.
One can grant that another intelligent human of good will might mistakenly understand a religious principle or goal. But, how can anyone understand that one Divine revelation can disagree, and even contradict another Divine revelation? Can the One God of the Universe say different things to different peoples? Of course.
The Qur’an is the primary Sacred Scripture that contains a theory of multiple prophets for the multiple peoples on earth. The Qur’an teaches, “There never was a people who lacked a warner (Prophet or Holy Sage) who lived among them.” (35:24) This is correct. While there probably always have been some non-religious individuals, all human societies have always had one or more religions.
For human beings, religion, like language, is ubiquitous. Of course, we do not know the names of the overwhelming majority of these inspired men and woman, especially those from pre-literate tribes, nations and societies. “Verily We sent messengers before you (Muhammad); among them some of whom we told you, and some of whom We did not tell you.” (40:78) In Muslim tradition the number of prophets reached 128,000; which means at least several for every human community that has ever existed.
Islam, as the most recent of the major monotheistic revealed religions, finds in its Sacred Scripture specific references to other revealed religions. “Say: we believe in (one) God, and in what has been revealed to us, and in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the (12) Tribes, in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the (other) Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to God (alone) do we submit.” (3:84)
Of course, each religion has its own laws, principles, history, rituals, holidays, etc. It is pointless to argue over all these things because each religion was inspired by the One who created us all, “Unto each community we have given sacred rites that they should perform; so let them not dispute with you about the matter.” (22:67)
When it comes to Judgement Day all those who believe in One God and live a good moral life, will have nothing to fear. “Those who believe (Muhammad’s message), those who are Jewish, the Sabeans (Zoroastrians) and the Christians; any who believe in God and the Day of Judgement, and do good deeds-on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (5:69)
And yet.in spite of these and many other similar verses in the Qur’an, we find many Muslim religious scholars attacking both Christianity and Judaism in the centuries following the death of Muhammad. This was the result of many attacks on the person of Muhammad and the religion of the Qur’an. Mutual vituperation grew ever stronger following the fall of Toledo in the west and the first crusade in the east.
Our generation must begin the process of reversing the long established principle of disdaining other religions. As a Jain Sacred Scripture teaches, “ Those who praise their own doctrines and disparage the doctrines of others, do not solve any problems.” (Sutrakritanga 1.1.50)
We must do this not just by toleration, but by respecting other Sacred Scriptures as supporting, from their own unique perspective, God’s goals for humanity. There are many paths that lead God. As a Hindu Sacred Scripture teaches, “Truth has many aspects. Infinite truth has infinite expressions. Though the sages speak in different ways, they express one and the same truth. One who says, ‘What I say and know is true, the others are wrong!’ is an ignoramus.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 11.15)
These differences will be with us until the end of days. From the very beginning God created us to be a species of diverse cultures and religions. As the Qur’an teaches, “O mankind! We created you from a single (couple) male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know (and thus respect) each other. (49:13) and “Unto every one of you have We appointed a (different) law and way of life. If God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He didn’t) in order to test you by means of what He vouchsafed unto you. So compete with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that you dispute.” (5:47)
This will be the situation until the end of days as the Sacred Scripture of both Jews and Christians teaches, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war. Every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him, for it is the Lord of Hosts who spoke. Though all peoples walk each in the name of its God, we will walk in the name of Adonai, our God, for ever and ever.” (Prophet Micah 4:3-5)
Thus, if each people truly follows the best of its own religious teachings; world peace and justice will result and God’s Kingdom will be established on Earth. If not, then God’s Judgement Day will occur and we will learn the whole truth about our narrow-minded differences: “So compete with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that you dispute.” (5:47)