By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
17 Apr 2020
Understanding the Perennialist view of plurality of salvation
Will Gandhi/Mother Teresa go to heaven? This question is often asked in Muslim circles. Counterpart of this question asked in Christian circles is regarding some Muslim saints/devout believers who didn’t recognize death and resurrection of Christ. A great number of followers of some religions believe that salvation is restricted to their religion only, sometimes to their sects within religion only. Unless one knows Christ (A.S) or Muhammad (S.A.W) salvation can’t be granted, they assert. Mystics have generally resisted this belief and it is perennialists who have most comprehensively questioned it and provided alternative view of plurality of salvation. Many Muslim scholars have the following misgiving about perennialist approach to religion/ Islam: Perennialists think all traditional religions are true and can lead to salvation. And this claim contradicts the thesis that the Quran asserts that the only acceptable religion now to God is Islam. And Islam is identified with five pillars in the sense that these constitute essential condition for salvation. Perennialists identify the term Islam used in the above-mentioned verse as submission to God/Reality which defines religion elsewhere (as in Catholic Encyclopaedia) as well and this characterizes all traditional religions. They point to this usage of the term in many other Quranic verses where Islam is identified with The Religion, not a religion born in Arabia and as the religion of all prophets when neither Muhammad was born nor were five pillars in the form known as came to be after Muhammad (SAW) came (as are listed in Hadith-i-Jibriel). How do we choose between these two interpretations both claiming to represent authentic view of Islamic tradition? To show perennialists are wrong one has to show the following:
1, There are irresolvable differences at metaphysical and esoteric planes amongst traditional religions. They grant that theological plane there are differences and all religions are unique. Let anyone point out one essential and significant irresolvable difference after mastering respective metaphysical/mystical grounding/dimension of diverse religions and show how this translates into limiting salvation in this or that direction.
2, Salvation is dependent on what distinguishes religions at theological/legal levels rather than what unites at metaphysical/esoteric planes. If all grant that the Quran recognizes unity of revealed religions at esoteric level, one can’t conclusively show that salvation is necessarily dependent on exoteric aspect. Linking salvation to shariah (exoteric theological-legal structure) would contradict Quranic assertion that all revealed religions were valid paths for salvation but differed in exoteric theological-legal aspects.
3, Definitions/timeless/primordial character and salvific function of unchanging metaphysical and mystical truths suddenly changed in the 7th century when Jibriel visited the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Showing this would be anyway impossible and suicidal as one as a Muslim also maintains that the Prophet brought nothing essentially new but only recalled/revived the timeless Din and came to affirm and not to declare null and void belief in previous revelations.
4, The following analogy may be helpful to elucidate my point so that anyone with common sense will be able to form his informed response to the question. There is an old fruit tree planted at the time of Adam that produced many apples of which we have no record left but there are say seven different apples that were produced in last 7000 years of which we have some record and it is claimed by different people who have somehow, for historical and other accidental factors, caught hold of one apple each that theirs is the only apple that serves the life giving nutritive function now and all others are rotten. It is however, in the same breath, also claimed that apples expired on so and so date for the reason that new apple was born and somehow sent some suicidal signal or signal that automatically turned others’ lives off. Or it is claimed that apples had begun to rot and new apples were born to supplant them and by this logic there should have, ideally at least, survived only one last apple and others should be by now smelling so badly that none could tolerate the stink. Or it is claimed that all apples except one are already stinking and need to be disposed off immediately. These apples can’t help in the basic cause of life saving energy production (salvation). It is asserted that the tree suddenly had a great mutation and the fruit suddenly changed to hitherto unknown or now new thing that other apples on the tree can’t even be classed with the same and need to be thrown out as worthless for the cause of providing nutrition (salvation). Now the questions to consider regarding the view that after the apple of Islam appeared on the tree other apples suddenly became worthless:
• How could this be if roots (metaphysics as enshrined in La illaha Illa lah and if we note deeper metaphysical/esoteric meaning of another clause Muhammad rasoolulah - in light of the metaphysical doctrine of Muhammadan Light/haqiqatiMuhammadiya/Wahdat – even Muhammad Rasoolulah remains the same) life sustaining sap and leaves (iman and amalisaliha) haven’t changed.
• Despite missionary efforts and convictions of many believing communities, other people are eating their apples and apparently there is no indication that they are rotten or poisonous.
• Invoking another analogy of sim card, it means previous sim cards all of a sudden become invalidated with the arrival of new sim (Islam). Doesn’t it mean new sims abolish or invalidate rather than affirm or recognize other or previous cards? If yes, doesn’t it mean affirmation of revelations that forms part of the creed of Muslims is vacuous?
5, Doesn’t it mean that we effectively reject rather than affirm the fact that God sent previous revelations? It costs me nothing to affirm God sent such and such a book/prophet if currently they have nothing to validate them?
6, Doesn’t it mean that saints/sages can’t be produced in other traditions? But how come it is universally recognized that saintly figures are produced elsewhere as well in all ages and we find the Quran praising the saintly figures/monks?
7, Isn’t it the case that this proposal is too ambitious and thus, for all practical purposes, impossible to realize? Half of the world hasn’t even heard of Islam as a possible option to embrace to be considered despite passing of 14 centuries. There are huge populations that remain in principle inaccessible to foreign religions, languages, cultures for anthropological and other reasons. There are hundreds of languages in which the Quran is yet to be translated and missionary activity is, for all practical purposes, almost impossible in many tribal areas where foreigners are, as a rule, resisted. And it seems that they would hardly evolve to understand what appears to them an alien universe of meaning though they have corresponding mythological and symbolic equivalents and God is indeed not without witness.
8, How does this thesis stand against the history that clearly questions any project that wants to erase religions, cultures, philosophies, traditions, paths or legal systems in the name of one standard “pure” Islamic way that is inalienably identified with exoteric structure?
9, How does this thesis gel with certain key Quranic declarations that God has appointed different ways (shariahs/manahij) for people, that God will resolve differences of doctrines in the otherworld, that different religions are de facto recognized and accordingly dealt with, that marriages between believers of different revealed religions are solemnized, that God doesn’t want one path/minhaj (as distinguished from Ad-Din – the Tradition – that grounds, at deeper levels, all revealed/authentic/sanctified paths) to lord all others?
10, Are we ready to accept on various grounds the implied thesis that denying – or at least decreasing probability of /risking – salvation to righteous believers of other religions disposes four fifth or at least two third of humankind to eternal hell for purely accidental reasons of not being born in particular religion/land?
11, Isn’t it the case that much killing has been done, much intolerance bred on this supposition that a particular religion alone should supervene and on pain of death conversions/political subordination have been demanded? This is especially true about Christians.
Given these problems and given the dominant perception regarding all apples as rotten except one and battles over which one is rotten, how do we address the issue? I state a possible solution, keeping in view especially distinction between Islam as a religion and the Religion in the form of propositions.
Proposition 1: All Muslims agree that God sent only one true religion from Adam to Muhammad in the Quran. And this is designated Islam.
Proposition 2: All Muslims also agree that that laws/exoteric aspect of revealed religions have been changing.
Propositions 3: Everyone knows that Muslim legal/theological schools have differed and from time to time revival of religion occurs and fiqh formulations may change with every age without deviating from the Divine Norm that revealed shariah embodies.
(It means the exact form of shariah as far as expressible in terms of fiqh is still not fixed. And this implies that it is only the core that doesn’t change that should have necessary connection with salvation. However the emphasis on exoteric religion in integral tradition should not be missed and one can see that prayer and charity and discipline of fasting and transforming effect of sacred space that constitute the essence of pillars of exoteric religion are universally found present amongst religions (and their precise forms are somewhat flexible even within a particular religious tradition) and believed to contribute to salvation.
Proposition 4: Despite problems in preservation of sacred texts or other discontinuities in various traditions, what is remarkable is that core esoteric truths/realisational pathways and virtues conducive to salvation/felicity remain intact.
Proposition 5: The report from the laboratories of symbolism, esotericism and hermeneutics developed by traditionalists and many other scholars of diverse persuasions clearly state that none of the apples is poisonous. There is some difference of flavour or taste but all have good nutritional value.
Now the only way to dispute the report of the test is to develop better tests that more objectively show what is the case or state of apples. Unless that is done we better trust plain reading of the Quran whose many verses take other religions for granted, advocate coming to common ground with them, affirm their divine origin, don’t accuse all believers with charges of any kind such as corrupting meanings and praise a section of them, address other faiths in their own terms while calling them to uphold what has been sent to them, invite all to common sense and history and note convergences in ethical and esoterical formulations, symbolism, myths one is led to conclude that Ad-Din remains one despite various formulations at exoteric plane amongst authentic traditions. The thesis that salvation is not restricted to one religion is maintained, implicitly or explicitly, by most Sufis/mystics and traditional philosophers, artists/poets, most modern scholars of world religions and great number of believers as part of their belief system.