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Benefiting from Other Religious Traditions: A Muslim Perspective

By Waris Mazhari

February 15, 2017

In a well-known verse in the Quran, God says:

“O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and   have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.”

This Quranic verse mentions that all human beings are children of the same set of primal parents. Thus, they all have, by birth itself, an equal status. They also possess a similar nature (Fitrah), the nature on which God has created every human being. In the Islamic understanding, as we learn from this verse, the only criterion for distinguishing between people in terms of their nobility is their level of Taqwa, i.e. God-consciousness. Taqwa is the only source of dignity and superiority in the sight of God.

Another fact that this Quranic verse highlights is that God has divided the whole of humanity into groups and tribes, and this is with the purpose that they should know each other.

The question here arises as to what it means ‘to know each other’?

Knowing each other is a means for people from diverse backgrounds, including religious backgrounds, to come closer to each other and assist one another to achieve common goals. This verse can also be read, then, as a call for interfaith and inter-community understanding and cooperation.

By underscoring the fact that human diversity is a God-given phenomenon, the Quran teaches us about the importance of ‘unity in diversity’. Nature dislikes uniformity because the universe that God has created is characterized by diversity and pluralism. The Quran very beautifully says:

“Did you not see how God sent down water from the sky with which We bring forth fruit of diverse colours. In the mountains there are streaks of various shades of white and red, and jet-black rocks; in like manner, men, beasts, and cattle have their diverse hues too. Only those of His servants, who possess knowledge, fear God. God is almighty and most forgiving (35:27-28).

Taking a cue from Nature, which displays incredible harmony amidst immense diversity, human beings are required to act in accordance with the principle of respecting the unity of human beings amidst diversity, which is only truly possible if we consider all of humankind as one vast family of  God.

In my view, when the above-quoted Quranic verse talks about people from different social groups getting to know one another, this is to be understood not simply in the sense of gaining information about one another—or information just for information sake. Rather, it could also include learning about and from each other’s religious, spiritual, social and cultural traditions in order to benefit from them.

In this regard, it is instructive to note that the Quran says that the Torah contains ‘guidance and light’ (5:44). Those who have read the Quran would know that it refers to the Bible in several places. Many famous commentators on the Quran draw on the Bible in explaining several Quranic verses. Likewise, it is worth mentioning here that the Quran (26:196) talk about zubur al-awwaleen, which means ancient books.Some Muslim scholars point out that this might also include Hindu scriptures, which according to Hindu belief contain Divinely-revealed knowledge and are called in sruti in Vedic terminology. Like the Bible and other religious books, the Vedas and Upanishads also contain many teachings similar to those in the Quran.

These similarities in different scriptures speak of the same Divine Source. It has been explained in several verses in the Quran that to every community God has sent a ‘guide’ (hadin) and a ‘warner’ (nazeer), who received revelations from God. Many of these revelations may have not have been protected from corruption over time, but one cannot over look the wisdom and insight they still contain. This treasure of wisdom is a collective or universal human inheritance, which every human being deserves to avail of. And that is in accordance with the Islamic spirit. In this regard, it is instructive to recall a well-known hadith, reported by Abu Huraira:

The Messenger of God said, “The wise saying is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.”(Source: Tirmidhi)

This is a very valuable and insightful tradition. It implies that no community has a monopoly over wisdom and that everyone is entitled to wisdom wherever he or she may find it.

In this regard, it is striking to consider the tendency among many religionists to benefit as much as they can from other communities’ worldly knowledge and experiments but to avoid doing the same when it comes to their spiritual experiences and wisdom. This lamentable tendency can be overcome if we train our minds to realise that the essence of every religion is ethics and moral values and hence that they are not as different from each other as many people sadly think. If almost every religion stresses ethical values and moral character, there is really no reason why people of different faiths should think of religions other than the one they claim to follow as something totally contrary to their own.

A number of verses in the Quran and many Hadith reports talk about ‘wisdom’ (Hikmah). Now, what exactly does this word mean? Can we, Muslims, attempt to discover Hikmah in the other religious and spiritual traditions as well? Can we spiritually benefit from this wisdom and insight that is found in other religious traditions? Some sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, irrespective of how reliable they may be,do not allow Muslims to come into touch with scriptures of other religions. But here it needs to be considered that even the traditionalist ulema are unanimous on the point that this relates to some specific circumstances when the revelation of the Quran had not been completed and the first generation of Muslim community was yet to be fully educated and trained. In this phase of early Islamic history, even Muslims were asked not to gift or carry the Quran to people of other faiths. This was similar to the prohibition on writing down of hadith reports for a certain period of time, for fear that they may be mixed with the Quranic revelations that were so far not compiled. The prohibition on reading scriptures of other religions at this time must be seen in that particular context, because those who had become Muslims had only recently embraced the faith and needed to grow fully in it. The restriction must then be seen as contextual, not as a general rule for all times.

While talking about the responsibilities of the prophets of God, the Quran (2:129) specially states that they teach people the Book and wisdom (Hikmah). Commentators on the Quran have defined the word Hikmah in many ways. I firmly believe that this word also includes the spiritual insights and wisdom that are contained in other religious scriptural traditions and transmitted through the generations. They nurture the human soul, illuminate the human mind and expand our spiritual experiences. They are a common human legacy and we should not remain deprived of it. In this regard, it is important to note that some commentators on the Quran suggest that Hikmah includes, among other things, the Jewish and Christian scriptures—or what are conventionally called the Old and the New Testaments. In further support of our argument, it is also interesting to note that Ali bin Abi Talib, the forth Caliph, has been quoted as saying that one should seek knowledge even though it is from polytheists (Source: Jame Bayan ul-Ilm)

Some Muslim scholars expound the view that anything not found in established Islamic tradition is mere ‘ignorance’ (Jahiliyah) and hence, that there is no need for Muslims to study or benefit from it. I do not agree with this. Here the concept of Jahiliyah requires to be understood in proper sense. It is not right to think that every single thing related to the pre-Islamic period is absolutely wrong and the Prophetic mission was aimed at putting an end to it entirely, as is widely interpreted. The fact is that many social and cultural traditions in the Jahiliyah period possessed common human and moral value, which, instead of being eliminated, was promoted by Islam. One saying of the Prophet appropriately proves this fact. The Prophet said: “People are like gold and silver; those who were best in Jahiliyah [the pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance)] are best in Islam, if they have religious understanding”(Source: Bukhari).

A story related to the Prophet make this point even more clear and visible. Once, a group of people called on the Prophet and informed him that they had learned five moral teachings in the Jahiliyah period. When the Prophet asked them to elaborate, they said: “Expressing thanks to God when hope for achieving something is fulfilled, exercising patience in the time of tribulation, firmness in front of fighting enemies, reliance on destiny and exercising patience with regard to enemies (not taking revenge) and rejoicing in grief and misfortune.” It was so amazing for the Prophet that he said: “How much wise and knowledgeable they are! They are talking like a prophet’’. (Source: Jame ul-Masaneed wa al-Sunan).

It can be inferred from this Prophetic report that wisdom and virtue are definitely not a monopoly of a certain religion or community.

Something being good does not inevitably need to be proved to be so from a religious text if it is not incompatible with reason and human nature and is not harmful to human society. If something promotes human causes and proves useful for social and human welfare, it can be availed of by everyone, irrespective of where it is found and who finds it. The Prophet is reported to have said that the best of people are those who benefit humankind (Source: Kanz ul-Ummal). This clearly indicates that what Islam teaches is not odd and unusual. Apart from a set of beliefs, it is essentially the same moral teachings and guidance of all the prophets, religious leaders and sages (Rishi Munis) who have appeared among the human race ever since it came to this planet. That said, it is also important to keep in mind that not everything in every culture or religious tradition is good, laudable or worthy of emulation. Benefiting from others does not mean blindly imitating them. In learning and imbibing from others one must make sure the norms and teachings of one’s own faith are preserved.

It is a well-established fact that what is called the ‘Muslim Golden Age’ was indebted to several religious and cultural traditions, including the Greek, Iranian, Indian, Coptic, Nestorian etc..This clearly shows how willingness to learn good things from other peoples and cultures is itself a good thing and is not something banned in Islam. The Sufistic tradition is the best example of bringing the best human values together in itself, for it has borrowed from several religious, non-religious and philosophical traditions, combining them with the spirit of Islam. Authentic Sufism reflects this inclusive nature of Islam and its true teachings of love for the whole of humanity.

Muslims believe that Islam embodies Truth. But that does not necessarily mean that everything pertaining to any other religion is false or ‘un-Islamic’. We should not deny the goodness in them and their great contributions to human society. Rather, we should readily acknowledge this goodness. I believe Islam, far from preventing its followers from benefiting from it, actually encourages it.