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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 39: Truth and Plurality: Part 2




By Ziauddin Sardar


July 03, 2008


I find the idea that Islam will somehow reign supreme and dominate the world, perpetuated by certain non-Muslim groups, and believed by some Muslims, to be a ridiculous nonsense from the perspective of the Qur'an. The Qur'an does not expect, or indeed suggest, that everyone will accept Islam or that the world will become a monolithic religious entity- under the tutelage of an imagined global "Islamic caliphate", as some Muslims would have us believe. But it does expect that everyone should have the freedom to believe what they wish - let there be no compulsion in religion - and that believers of different religions should co-exist in harmony and mutual respect. Humanity is one; but it is a humanity that thrives on diversity and difference. 

It is not only Judaism and Christianity that are based on revealed Truth. The Qur'an also mentions another community: the Sabians (2:62) In Prophet's Medina, the Sabians where those who believed in divine mystery and followed the Gnostic path. In contemporary times, I would argue, the Sabians represent all those with mystical tendencies, who promote self-awareness of God and "do good". For these people too, we are told, "there is no fear": "they shall have their reward from their Lord".

But we can expand this circle of faith communities even wider, Madeleine. If prophets have been sent to every nation, then every religious community has some aspects of the Divine Truth. Sufi scholars in India, for example, have argued that Ram and Krishna, highly revered in Hinduism, could be Prophets. And Hindus are a people of the book as they have the Vedas which contains an abstract idea of God and describes Ishwar (God) as without shape and human attributes (Nirankar and Nirgun), a notion not too far removed from the monotheistic conception of God. And Sikhs, with their emphasis on the unity of God and reliance of the teachings of Sufi saints are clearly a faith community with aspects of divine truth. Such considerations led Shah Waliullah, the 18th Indian reformist sufi, to postulate the idea wahdat al-din or "unity of religions" - an idea that has common currency amongst Sufis.

I think the Qur'an supports this position. Every community, we are told, has "appointed acts of devotion" (22:34), symbolic ways of worship and adoring God. And we read in 2:148, "each community has its own direction to which it turns". Every faith community has its own individual path that it takes towards God and finds its own way 'to do good' and be virtuous.

Thus, the Qur'an envisages a religiously plural world, where different communities share different aspects of the Divine Truth. Each religion is unique in its beliefs, rituals and forms of worship. But underneath the external differences there is an internal unity; and the Qur'an places a strong accent on this unity. The emphasis should lead us to appreciate religious pluralism as well as promote religious harmony.

Of course, this is not always the case. Some may even argue it is seldom the case. I would certainly agree that while Muslims always take pride in the record of tolerance and multiculturalism in their history, in today's world we do not live up to our heritage. And when we are stiff necked and indulge in holier than thou attitudes towards other faiths we are explicitly out of line with the spirit and the letter of the Qur'an.

To promote religious harmony in a world of religious plurality the Qur'an provides a number of guidelines. First, the faith communities are urged not to take an extremist position: "People of the book do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth" (4:171). Second, they are urged to deal with each other in the best of all possible ways: when arguing about God they should argue in the "most courteous way" (16:125) and "say what is best" (17:17). Third, they are advised not to revile the beliefs of each other, indeed even the beliefs of the polytheists (6:108); and, when accosted by others for their own beliefs, they are urged to "walk humbly on earth" and reply: "Peace"(25:63). (As Madeleine notes, this verse also has an environmental interpretation; I will explore this in a future blog).

Of course, treating each other with respect, and speaking in gentle and kind manner, is sometimes just not enough, particularly when it concerns fundamental religious differences. Here, the Qur'an offers an ultimate fallback position - "a model for tolerance which has become very popular", as Madeleine says. Declare truce and move on:

Say: "O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship,
Nor do you worship what I worship;
Now will I ever worship what you worship,
Now will you ever worship what I worship,
You have your religion,
And I have mine." (


The most important guidance given by the Qur'an is a riposte to all people of faith - that God alone knows all! It is a reminder that ultimately faiths define their differences in terms of practise, worship and rituals, ordered by theological interpretation. But flawed human beings can have only a tenuous hold on weighty theological distinctions about the nature of God, the Hereafter, the nature and circumstances of forgiveness and redemption and other such issues. Yet it is a consistent feature of human nature to contend and argue, to go to war to kill and to die - as we have seen so many times in European history - for the sake of what we can never know nor possess the whole truth of; only God Alone knows the answer to these questions and will make them clear to us not in this world but only in the next. All the etiquette the Qur'an offers about religious debate underscores this point. Just as all it has to say about human communities over complicating and over interpreting and turning revelation to their own ends makes the same point.

It may be human to be fascinated by imponderable questions relating to faith, what we regard as the big questions of existence. But the Qur'an is also telling us clearly and repeatedly that the desire to appropriate and domesticate God to our level of understanding and pronounce definitively on matters that belong to God alone is the most basic distraction from the true path of faith which is doing good, bringing forth justice and equity in ourselves, the life of our society and its relations with other peoples.

Instead of arguing over theological issues, we should ensure there is freedom, equity, fairness and accountability in human societies, there is full participation for everyone no matter what they believe or who they are. We have to ensure the eradication of poverty and give everyone the dignity of fair wages and gainful employment according to their abilities, economic justice for all and education for all. These are only some of the explicit areas of human life to which the Qur'an devotes particular attention and which thus become the substance of living faith. They are problems that are hard enough for actual societies to tackle, as history proves again and again. But they are within our compass, and they are essential tests of our faith.



In The Realm of Non-Negotiables


By Madeleine Bunting

July 01, 2008

Zia asked me some questions relating to the last blog. What's preventing Christianity from recognising Islam as a revealed religion and extending the same ecumenical courtesy that Islam gives to Christianity? What does Christianity, or indeed Buddhism, suggest about reconciling and transcending difference and learning to live and let live?

It's interesting how when the tables are turned, I see why some of my own questions might jar with Zia. The presumptions which underlie Zia's first question are very evident to me. Firstly, is it an ecumenical courtesy that Islam gives Christianity? I don't think many Christians would see it like that. Islam emphatically does not accept the divinity of Christ, that Christ is the son of God, so Christians would say not much courtesy there. It seems to me that the divinity of Christ is a major dividing line between Muslims and Christians: they can never come to any mutual understanding on this issue so they just have to agree to differ. To both of them, the other's belief on this issue is fundamentally problematic - even perhaps offensive.

Then the other aspect of Zia's question which feels askew is the "recognition of Islam as a revealed religion". Well for any Christian, it is hard to accept that a religion is revealed by God if it doesn't acknowledge the divinity of the son of God. Recognising Christ as a prophet is just not good enough. Christians place the trinity at the heart of their belief and Muslims place the oneness of God at the heart of their belief. We are in the territory of non-negotiables. When I write like this I'm trying to see Christian belief objectively rather than write myself as a Christian. I'm simply writing what seems to be an obvious matter of clashing belief systems.

What I like about the tradition of pluralism in Islam is that it gives us more assistance through such non-negotiables than Christianity does. Moving onto Zia's second question, I think I would like best to put my hands up immediately and say that Christianity offers meagre sustenance for transcending difference. It's historically a great failing in the Christian tradition that its holy book is written as an exclusive claim to one truth and it has been practised as such for most of the last 2000 years. Its record of tolerating diversity of belief is, frankly, awful.

The one piece of text I fall back on is the verse in which Christ says "there are many rooms in my father's mansion" when talking about the kingdom of heaven. But I realise that many many others have not interpreted these words as a prescription for tolerance of belief. What the New Testament is much better on is compassion towards those who are different. Christ's treatment of the Samaritans for example. So, there is little room for diversity of belief but room for tolerance of those who believe differently.

I've listened closely to how other faiths tolerate this exclusivity in Christianity and have found that fascinating. I remember talking with a Hindu woman, about Christ's phrase "I am the way, the truth and the life, anyone who comes to the father must come through me." (It's the biblical phrase that always seems to end up on billboards outside depressing churches). She had no problem with Christ's claim: "What did he mean by 'I' or 'me'?" she asked. That perception of the individual "I" has a great cultural resonance in the west, but is understood very differently in the east. She questioned how any individual person can be a truth or a way or a life. What he meant was that the teachings were the way, the truth and the life. I found this very helpful, but I suspect that plenty of other Christians would be horrified by that interpretation.

Buddhism, Zia, is a much easier one. It has a long history and tradition of tolerance. The Buddha describes his teaching as a raft - you use it to cross the river - but there are other rafts and the point is getting across the river, not how you do it. The ultimate aim is quite clear - compassion to all living beings - the crucial thing is how you cultivate that habit.

This greater tradition of tolerance within Buddhism has probably contributed to its history; it lost India to Islam and Hinduism. It was forced back as a religion to more marginal areas such as Tibet. It is a big part of why I am so interested in the tradition myself; I feel Christianity doesn't help us much in this hypermobile diverse world. Its long tradition of exclusivity and supremacy is evident all around us. It nurtures appalling arrogance and even is used to legitimise violence. Some branches of American evangelicalism are very disturbing.

I think there is much to be said about how Christianity and Islam have been competitors for converts, for trade, for power and influence. This rivalry has exacerbated the supremacist tendencies in both faiths; it has been a disastrous relationship at many times in history. I wonder now whether there are ways in which we can shed this history or whether it determines our future too. What do you think Zia?


URL of Part 38: