Since the days of Abraham, all monotheistic religions have denied the validity of all the polytheistic religions that use material images of the incorporeal Divine One in worship.
The disciples of Moses and Muhammad strongly battled against associating any other divinity with, or using any material images to represent, the incorporeal Divine One.
With the rise of Christianity, especially in its Catholic and Orthodox branches that uniformly use material images of a first century Jewish rabbi named Jesus to represent the Divine One, the clear distinction between Abrahamic monotheism and pagan polytheism became blurred, because Christians vociferously asserted that while they were monotheistic trinitarians, they were not polytheistic idol worshipers.
With the rise of those Protestant Christian groups that eliminated idols from their churches, the issue has become even more problematic.
One solution to the problem comes from the Qur’an, which as the last of the world’s major sacred scriptures, is the only one that is able to refer to the world’s earlier monotheistic religions and their sacred scriptures.
The Qur’an states: “ Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians; any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:62)
Of course, a person who belongs to a true monotheistic religion, and does not try to live faithfully according to his or her religion’s moral and religious demands, will not enjoy their own religion’s benefits.
As the Qur’an states: “If only they had stood by the Torah, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is among them a party on the right course; but many of them follow a course that is evil.” (5:66)
Thus, there is always a party within every monotheistic religion (including the Muslim Ummah) that are on the right course, and a party that stray from the right way and follow a course that is evil.
Therefore monotheism is the only specific demand required to be a valid religion. As the Qur’an states: “Verily Allah will not forgive the joining of partners with Him, but He may forgive (sins) less than that for whoever He wishes” (4:48 and 116)
How then can we explain statements by people like imam al-Nawawi who claims: ‘One who does not consider a person who follows a religion besides Islam – like a Christian – to be a disbeliever, or doubts that such a person is a disbeliever, or deems their religion to still be valid, is himself a disbeliever – even if, along with this, he manifests Islam and believes in it.’
Al-Nawawi and others holding this view, use verses in the Qur’an stating: “He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers.” [3:85] and “The [true] religion in Allah’s sight is Islam” [3:19]
This view point, that the religion of Islam has superseded all previously revealed teachings, and that it is the last dispensation or “version” of Islam possible, is well stated by Al-Ghazali in his Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din – “Revival of the Religious Sciences”:
“The Prophet’s Sacred Law has abrogated and superseded all earlier revealed laws, except those provisions in them (like never eating pork) that the (new) Sacred Law has reconfirmed.”
The constant Christian attacks on the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad led the majority of Muslim scholars to chose to elucidate the clear pluralistic verses of the Qur’an, by subordinating them to the seemingly exclusivist verses, rather than understanding the seemingly exclusive verses, according to the clearly pluralistic verses in the Qur’an.
The pluralistic religious view of the Qur’an, fell victim to the need to defend the Qur’an from medieval Christian arguments that “there is no salvation outside the church”, by making the Qur’an seem to be as narrow minded as the Christian Bible.
But 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 morally in doing good deeds.
This is a test of the commitment and effectiveness of each communities leaders, and the loyalty, 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, and 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.