A Muslim´s Proposal: Non-Reductive Religious Pluralism
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A Muslim´s Proposal: Non-Reductive Religious Pluralism (1)
There is an overwhelming plurality of varieties of pluralism. In what follows, I will attempt to distinguish among them so that we can understand what is meant by religious pluralism. I will argue that even after religious pluralism is distinguished from other sorts of pluralism, a variety of positions could be considered versions of religious pluralism. Among the different sorts of religious pluralism, we may distinguish reductive from non-reductive varieties. The proponents of reductive forms of religious pluralism attempt to identify a common element among different religions on the basis of which the religions are successful in some specified way. According to non-reductive religious pluralism, to the contrary, God guides whomever He will, (2) not only by virtue of features common to several religions, but by their unique divine qualities, as well. More specifically, while reductive pluralism is the position that what is good about religions is what is common to a plurality of them, non-reductive pluralism is the view that each of a number of religions has unique features through which God may guide people, even if there is no common essence to all religions. I will argue that there are good reasons for scepticism about reductive religious pluralism, while non-reductive religious pluralism makes more sense, philosophically and theologically, especially given several important features of Islamic theology.
The term pluralism was first used to signify a metaphysical doctrine by Christian Wolff (1679-1754), and later popularized by William James (1842-1910). A different but related sense of pluralism is moral pluralism. While metaphysical pluralists hold that there is an irreducible plurality of types of substance, truths, or original principles, moral pluralists hold that there is an irreducible plurality of independent moral values. The two sorts of pluralism, metaphysical and moral, are eloquently linked in the work of Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). Berlin defended moral pluralism throughout his long career. Political theorists use the term for systems in which a variety of ways of life are permitted to coexist or are encouraged. Perhaps the best place to look for a discussion of pluralism in this sense is in the more recent writings of the late John Rawls (1921-2002), particularly in his Political Liberalism. Rawls speaks of competing comprehensive systems of thought and value (for example, various religious systems, various theories of socialism, ethical humanism, etc.) whose differences can be expected to persist in democratic societies. (3) Rawls then attempts to show that reasonable people who hold differing comprehensive views will develop an overlapping consensus with regard to basic procedural principles of justice as fairness. Finally, there is religious pluralism, or rather, there are religious pluralisms, for the label has been used for different and often confused claims. Some writers use the term “religious pluralism” for a theological view that allows salvation for the adherents of different religions and concedes some sort of validity to a plurality of religions. Many other writers, however, use the term in a political sense, for a position that advocates the acceptance of and respect for the followers of different religions. All to often, the different uses of the term are confused. (4)
We can give a rather abstract definition of religious pluralism by saying that it is a doctrine according to which some sort of favorable attribution is ascribed to a plurality of religions. This definition has the advantage of making it crystal clear that we can expect to find a wide variety of positions that could be described by the term religious pluralism. The variety is so wide that the claim that someone accepts religious pluralism in this sense is almost trivial.
In order to begin to put meat on the bones of this skeletal religious pluralism, two parameters must be specified: (1) the sort of favorable attribution to be ascribed, and (2) the scope of the plurality to which the favorable attribution is ascribed. There are all sorts of positive status that can be claimed for one or more religions. Religions are said to contribute to mental health, to facilitate social arrangements, to lead to salvation, to be true, to be ordained by God, to have a long and rich tradition, and many others.
Some of the positive things said about religions make specific reference to their adherents, while other attributions apply to the doctrines, rituals or historical features of religions without making any claims about their followers. For example, with regard to adherents it has been claimed that some religions provide a framework of beliefs and practices within which some their followers have mystical experiences of various kinds. A different sort of example is the claim that the adherents of different religions are entitled to certain rights, e.g., rights of worship. With regard to the content of religions it is said that some religions prescribe beautiful ceremonies, of some it is said that their creeds are true, and of some that the rules they prescribe are morally commendable.
An important way of stopping short of pluralism is to claim that although each of several religions has some particular positive status, they do not have the status equally. For example, a Buddhist might hold that all the major religions of the world provide means to obtain peace of mind, but that the means provided by Buddhism is more efficient, or leads to a deeper sense of peace of mind, or brings quicker or longer lasting peace of mind. I don’t know of a name that anyone has given for this sort of position, although it has been held by many philosophers and theologians. We might call it degree pluralism, but we should keep in mind that many modern defenders (as well as opponents (5) ) of religious pluralism would not call this a form of pluralism at all. They define pluralism in terms of a strict equality of status. Peter Byrne, for example defines religious pluralism as a three part claim:
(1) All major religious traditions are equal in respect of making common reference to a single transcendent, sacred reality.
(2) All major traditions are likewise equal in respect of offering some means or other to human salvation.
(3) All major traditions are equal in their inability to provide a norm for interpreting the others, and offer limited, revisable accounts of the nature of the sacred. (6)
Byrne’s position might be described as a kind of equality pluralism, as opposed to degree pluralism. Notice also that Byrne does not speak of the equality of religions, but of religious traditions. The difference can be crucial. For Muslims, religion, or dîn, is what God has revealed to guide us to Him. Religious traditions, however, include all sorts of things that humans have gathered in their attempts to follow religion. One might be an equality pluralist about religious traditions while taking a more exclusivist view about religions; that is, one could hold that God’s guidance for man is to be found in a single religion, but that the religious traditions of mankind fall so far short of what God offers us that none of these manmade traditions can be said to be any better than any of the others. On the other hand, one could take the reverse sort of position and hold that although God has revealed several distinct forms of guidance for human beings, so that there are several true and divinely revealed religions, the followers of all but one of these religions have gone astray by adding and subtracting to and from divine guidance in their cumulative traditions, but that there is one religious tradition that has remained faithful to divine guidance in a manner superior to the other major religious traditions. I do not intend to defend either of these positions, but the difference between them needs to be kept clear when we attempt to evaluate religious pluralism.
Before we decide whether to be in favor of religious pluralism or not, we have to determine exactly what good feature is being attributed to what multiplicity of religions or religious traditions. Although people have said some pretty silly things about religion, no one is an absolute religious pluralist, that is, no one has ever claimed that anything good that can be said of any religion can be said of all of them, with a few important exceptions. Some atheists contend that this is vacuously true of all religions. Some religious believers define religion and religious in such an exclusive manner that they contend that there is only one religion and only one religious tradition, and so would agree that whatever is good about one is good about all religions, just because they think there are no others. Other people with a much more embracive attitude reach the same conclusion by holding that there is only one religion, which includes all of what are commonly called “religions” and only one religious tradition, which is the religious heritage of all mankind. Most reasonable people, however, will agree that various good things can be said about different religions and about different religious traditions. They will differ about what good things can and cannot be said about them.
This is a point that is also emphasized by Prof. Byrne: “We should be clear from the outset that pluralism is not as such committed to saying that all major religions are equal in every aspect of cognitive endeavour.....” (7) Byrne claims that what is required by religious pluralism is the three part equality claim mentioned above, while relative superiority in other respects may be allowed. Other advocates of religious pluralism have defined their versions of pluralism with regard to other features. John Hick, for example, places considerably more emphasis than Byrne on the moral function of religion, (8) while Fritjof Schuon contends that the transcendental unity of religions is to be found in their esoteric dimensions. (9)
Often, when religious pluralism is discussed, the positive status attributed to a variety of religions is left somewhat vague. Worse than this is equivocation that begins by pointing out some common feature among religions and concludes with the claim that the religions are all the same in relation to some other feature. In order to avoid this sort of fallacy, at least the following seven sorts of pluralism should be distinguished. Other dimensions of religious pluralism could also be defined, but the following seem more pertinent to contemporary discussions of religious pluralism.
1. Soteriological religious pluralism is defined in terms of salvation. According to an equality soteriological pluralism, a plurality of religions are equally effective in guiding people to salvation. A degree pluralist in this regard would hold that people may be guided to salvation through a plurality of religions, although some ways will be more effective than others, either by providing guidance that is easier to follow, or that leads to a higher degree of salvation, or that is more suitable to guide a greater number of people, or by some other criterion could be judged superior in bringing people to salvation.
2. Normative religious pluralism pertains to how adherents are to treat the followers of religions other than their own. An equality pluralist in this regard would claim that there should be no difference at all in one’s behavior toward persons of different religious beliefs. If carried out strictly, this would prevent any sort of participation in a particular religious community, for such participation requires a special sort of cooperation based on religious affiliation. The opposite extreme from equality pluralism would be the view that seems to have been held, unfortunately, by some Muslims as well as Christians, that one has no obligations whatsoever toward those who are not of one’s own faith, that their blood is permitted to be shed and their property taken. More reasonable would be the view that we are bound by certain obligations toward all human beings, although we may have additional special obligations to our co-religionists. (10) One might consider Islam to prescribe a sort of normative degree pluralism by issuing duties owed to human beings as such, additional duties owed to the “Peoples of the Book” and further duties owed to other Muslims.
Notice that despite the historical facts linking exclusivist views on salvation with intolerance, soteriological pluralism and normative pluralism are logically independent. Various forms of normative religious pluralism have been the focus of attention of a number of writers, some of whom use the term religious pluralism exclusively for various forms of normative religious pluralism. For example, Françoise Champion understands religious pluralism to be a political principle, and describes how it has gained currency as such in France over the last fifteen or twenty years among social-science researchers, political analysts and sociologists. She distinguishes two main types of (what I would call) normative religious pluralism, which she terms emancipatory pluralism and identity-based pluralism. Emancipatory pluralism is the claim that the adherents of different religions should be granted equal individual rights. Identity-based pluralism is an attempt to go beyond the liberalism of emancipatory pluralism by recognizing an equality of group rights, as has been suggested by some communitarian thinkers. (11)
3. Often discussions of religious pluralism focus on epistemological issues. (12) Epistemological religious pluralism is the view that all the major religious creeds are equally justified according to some proposed criteria of epistemological justification or warrant. This way of putting the matter focuses on the beliefs regardless of who holds them, as though the beliefs themselves have the capacity for being held as justified or warranted beliefs. We could call this epistemological belief pluralism and contrast it to epistemological agent pluralism, which would be expressed by the claim that the followers of no particular religion have any epistemological advantage in their beliefs over the followers of other religions. Of course, this would be an equality pluralism. We should not think that the followers of any of the major religions are a bunch of dummies, but are, generally speaking, epistemic peers. An epistemological degree pluralist would hold that the adherents of several religions differ to some degree in being justified or warranted in holding their beliefs, but that these differences are not sufficient for only one group to be justified and the rest unjustified. Again, this could be defined as a belief pluralism or as an agent pluralism. It would be reasonable to expect to find differences in degree of average intelligence of the followers of different religions, but these differences do not seem so great that we could reasonably claim that the adherents of one faith alone have justified beliefs while the rest don’t know how to think properly. The issue becomes more contentious when we consider belief pluralism. Some religious beliefs seem to be intrinsically harder to justify than others. Perhaps every religion has its difficult beliefs and easy beliefs, and perhaps they balance out in the end. But it would not be unreasonable to suspect that there could well be differences on the whole in the justifiability of different creeds.
4. Alethic religious pluralism is about the truth of beliefs rather than their justification. Unlike epistemological pluralism, there is no division here between belief pluralism and agent pluralism. An equality pluralism here would be the position that all the major religions are equally true. This position could be interpreted in a number of different ways. It would not make much sense to say that all the statements in the creeds of every major religion are equally true, because they contradict one another. Of course, one could adopt a relativist position on truth, but that seems a pretty heavy price to pay. Another way to accept contradictory religious claims would be to adopt what logicians call dialetheism, the view that some propositions are both true and false. (13) Although dialetheism seems to be accepted by the great Sufi theoretician Ibn ‘Arabi, (14) it does not appear to be an especially promising way to resolve interreligious contradictions. The ordinary way to be an equality pluralist about truth is to claim that the same amount of truth is to be found in the creeds of every religion. The obvious problem here is that we have no way to measure relative amounts of truth. We cannot just add up the beliefs and see how many come out true on each list.
5. Religions are not theories, nor can they be reduced to their creeds. They also have a practical side. The practical aspect of religion can give rise to two sorts of pluralism. First, one might claim that the major religions counsel equally noble moralities, either with regard to the values they instill, the obligations they place upon their adherents or the virtues they encourage. Let’s call this ethical religious pluralism. Like epistemological pluralism, ethical pluralism may take the form of an agent pluralism or a precept pluralism. Agent ethical pluralism holds that the adherents of no particular religion have any significant moral distinction over the adherents of any other major religion. Precept pluralism is the claim that the moral precepts taught by the major faith traditions are equally right. Once again, this sort of pluralism can be formulated as an equality pluralism or a degree pluralism. There are two main approaches to ethical precept equality pluralism. One way is to accept a version of moral relativism. Each religion’s morality is excellent by its own lights, and there is no absolute position from which one could be said to be better than any other. The other way, which is more commonly proposed, is to claim that the fundamental moral principles of all the major religions boil down to some common set of moral principles such as the golden rule, and that the particular differences in moral systems are unimportant.
6. The second sort of pluralism that arises in consideration of the practical aspect of religion pertains to specifically religious obligations instead of moral obligations. Is it possible to fulfill one’s religious obligations equally through adherence to any of a plurality of religions? A negative answer is given by those who reject deontological religious pluralism. They hold that God has commanded all of mankind at the present time to accept a specific religion. Choice of religion is not a matter of personal preference, but of obedience to divine prescription. Those who defend religious pluralism usually take religious choice to be a matter of personal preference because of the normative pluralistic claim that no one should impose or force any religion on anyone. However, normative and deontological pluralism should not be confused. One may endorse normative pluralism while denying deontological pluralism, that is, one may affirm that people should make their religious commitments in accord with their own personal consciences, and reject the notion that whatever they decide is in accord with the commands given by God through revelation. Indeed, I will argue that this sort of position is more consistent with a sound Islamic theology than a blanket acceptance of pluralism.
7. The sort of pluralism advanced by writers such as Ramakrishna (1834-1886), Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), René Guénon (1886-1951) and Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) could be called hermetic religious pluralism. According to this sort of religious pluralism, although religions are different exoterically, they share a common esoteric core. Although the thesis of hermetic pluralism is characteristically left rather vague, it is often presented as the claim that the major religions lead to the same goal, which is a certain perennial wisdom that comprises various metaphysical principles. A hermetic pluralist could claim that the religions are equally effective means for reaching this knowledge, or merely that the ultimate wisdom is the same, or that some essential portion of it is common to the esoteric traditions of the major religions.
Historically speaking, religious pluralism emerged as a theological position defended as such among Christian thinkers only in the twentieth century. Prior to that it is not difficult to find thinkers of various religious persuasions who advocated something that today we might call religious pluralism, at least in the form of a degree pluralism, but modern religious pluralism arose specifically in reaction to widespread Christian views about salvation.
According to the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, it was held that there is “no salvation outside the Church.” Since those outside the Church included unbaptized infants and the Old Testament prophets in addition to those considered damned, the Church taught that at the end of time the souls of such innocents would enter the Church and be saved. In this way it was maintained that there were absolutely no exceptions to the doctrine that only members of the Catholic Church could be saved. This also explains the severity of excommunication. Excommunication is a form of censure by which the Church announces that a person who has committed a particularly grievous offence, such as heresy or apostasy, is not permitted to take part in the sacraments and is excluded from the Church. The most severe form of excommunication (officially dropped by the Church after Vatican Council II), in which a person was declared anathema, was traditionally announced in a ceremony in which a bishop, wearing violet vestments, would recite a formula concluding with: “We separate him, together with his accomplices and abettors, from the precious body and blood of the Lord and from the society of all Christians; we exclude him from our holy mother the church in heaven and on earth; we declare him excommunicate and anathema; we judge him damned, with the devil and his angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire until he shall recover himself from the toils of the devil and return to amendment and to penitence.” (15)
Excommunication was carried over from Catholicism into many Protestant denominations, although some preferred to speak of “church discipline” instead of excommunication. In any case, the result of Christian sectarianism was the widespread belief that those of all sects other than one’s own were destined for hell. Often the belief that a person was destined for eternal punishment was taken as license for this worldly persecution. The Church’s Office of the Inquisition would hand over those it found guilty of heresy to the secular authorities who would torture and execute them.
The torture and execution stopped before people stopped considering one another damned for being Lutherans or Catholics, and this had more to do with the Enlightenment and the spread of political liberalism than any change in theology.
A major force against the view that Christians not of one’s sect are damned came in the form of the ecumenical movement. The ecumenical movement grew out of Protestant missionary activity. In 1910 a number of Protestant missionary societies held a conference in Edinburgh to discuss common goals and overcome sectarian antagonism in the propagation of Christianity. This eventually led to the formation of the World Council of Churches, in 1948.
The Catholic Church took major steps toward ecumenism at Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Not only was there an attempt at reconciliation with Protestants, but a more tolerant attitude toward the adherents of non-Christian faiths was also encouraged. Reconciliation has not been quick. It was only in October of 1999 that in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed a statement lifting the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century. (16)
Likewise, a respect for non-Christian faiths was advocated among Protestants through the Commission of Appraisal appointed by the Laymen’s Foreign Missionary Inquiry in 1932. The report of this commission, chaired by William Ernest Hocking, was seen as unacceptably liberal by conservative Christians, and Hocking defended it from charges of relativism and syncretism. (17)
The sort of religious pluralism that emerged from the ecumenical movement has tended to be a degree pluralism. One religious tradition is generally taken to have an advantage over the others with regard to the truth of its creed, the morality of its precepts, and its efficacy in guiding to salvation. However, the ecumenical thinkers allow that those not of their own sect may attain salvation, lead moral lives, and understand the truth, at least partially.
Sometimes this sort of ecumenical attitude toward other religions is called inclusivism. The focus of inclusivism is on salvation. Inclusivism is a form of reductive pluralism as defined above, because it holds that all who are saved through any religion are saved by virtue of an element common to them. Inclusivism is typically a degree pluralism because it holds that this common element is found in its best or purest form in a single religion.
John Hick, whose entire career has been devoted to a theological defence of religious pluralism, admits that his own pluralistic theology grew out of the ecumenical spirit of inclusivism, as taught by the Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984). (18) Hick moves beyond Rahner’s inclusivism by approaching an equality pluralism rather than a degree pluralism, and by insisting that it is by virtue of moral guidance common to all the major religious traditions that the religions are vehicles of salvation. Hick’s pluralism also shares various features in common with the proponents of hermetic pluralism, since he holds that religious differences are like the masks of an ineffable reality.
Hermetic religious pluralism was thrust into the spotlight of theological discussion by the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, and promoted by Theosophists, Swedenborgians and Transcendentalists. The Theosophist, in particular, advocated a much more radical form of hermetic religious pluralism than that which grew out of the ecumenical movement. The most articulate spokesperson for hermetic religious pluralism today is Seyyed Hossein Nasr. (19)
In this section I will briefly critique the pluralism advocated by John Hick. In the following section I will sketch a non-reductive religious pluralism that seems to be on sounder footing, both philosophically and theologically.
John Hick attempts to model the rationality of religious belief on that of perceptual belief. While our perceptual beliefs are formed on the basis of sense experience, religious beliefs are formed on the basis of religious experiences. This attempt has given rise to problems that stem from the fact that while there is a great deal of agreement on what perceptual beliefs are supported by our sensory experiences, there is much disagreement about what religious beliefs should be adopted on the basis of religious experience.
Aside from this problem, commentators have expressed dissatisfaction with the ineffability of the Ultimate Reality in Hick’s theory. “If we are left with nothing to be said about God or the Ultimate as it is in itself,” it is argued, “our religious belief more closely approximates unbelief and becomes relatively indistinguishable from atheism.” (20)
Another problem with Hick’s religious pluralism has to do with the fact that religions are more than collections of doctrines. Religions have important practical dimensions, not only because of the moral codes they promote, but also because of their ritual and aesthetic dimensions. Even if the doctrinal conflicts among religions could be reconciled along the lines suggested by Hick, the practical conflicts would remain. Of course, the practical demands of a religion with a strong juridical element, like Judaism, are integrated with its doctrinal elements. The force of Jewish law derives from its source in God mediated by the prophets. To the extent that the characterization of God presented to Jews through their prophets is considered a merely human product that does not really describe the Supreme Being itself, the force of Jewish law is weakened. The difference between being circumcised and uncircumcised becomes a mere cultural difference. Ritual and sacrament are able to lift the believer from the mundane world to a confrontation with the Ultimate because they are special; because the Ultimate or the representative of the Ultimate has ordained them. While this is compatible with there being a variety of ritual ways ordained by God, the replacement of particular beliefs about the Ultimate by the notion that particular beliefs and practices are mere cultural products by means of which one approaches an ineffable reality, reduces the specifically religious imperative. If the Jewish law is a cultural expression of God’s will that is in no way superior to the absence of such law in Christianity, why bother with it?
Hick’s religious pluralism is the advocacy of a forced doctrinal synthesis. It will not allow for ultimate differences in religious belief. No matter how strenuously the Hindu or Buddhist denies the personal nature of ultimate reality, and no matter how fervently the Christian asserts it, Hick would claim that there is no real conflict. Each merely expresses features of his or her own avenue to the Ultimate. This fails to do justice to the lived differences and conflicts among the adherents of the world’s religions. While religious pluralism is advertised as a theology of tolerance, it turns out to be intolerant of serious religious differences.
According to liberal political theory there is a sharp distinction between the public and private realms. Essentially private individuals posit a public realm through the social contract in order to satisfy mutual interests. Since the society includes those with differing religious ideas, religion is to be excluded from the public realm. Secularism is a corollary of political liberalism. Differences in religious belief are treated as aesthetic differences, or differences in taste. The social dimension of religion is subordinated to the personal. This attitude toward religion is also reflected in the philosophy of religious pluralism advocated by Hick, because he sees differences in religion as cultural differences in the expression of belief. All the religions involve a turning of the individual from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness, and the differences between the ways in which this is done in the various religions are non-essential, like matters of personal taste. According to reductive pluralism, preference for the Buddhist, Islamic, or Jewish ways is not to be decided by rational deliberation, for it is simply a matter of feeling, largely determined by one’s cultural training. As a result of such a view, reductive pluralists, like liberals, will underrate the social dimensions of religion. The specifically religious is excluded from public discourse by the liberal because of the lack of mutual interest, and by the reductive pluralist because the specifically religious can have no cognitive import, since it is merely an aspect of personal preference.
Liberalism and reductive religious pluralism both emphasize faith over practice in religion. The fact that no one should be forced to espouse a given creed is taken by liberals as a definitive statement of religious freedom. The use of the coercive force of the state to impose laws at odds with religious codes, e.g. the illegality of Mormon polygamy, is not considered to impinge on religious freedom, for what is restricted is practice, not belief. Pluralism also emphasizes faith over practice in its very conception of the problem of religious diversity as one to be solved by an ultimate reconciliation of beliefs.
Liberalism and reductive pluralism both present themselves in the guise of neutrality while in fact they both exclude various religious systems of belief and practice. In some cases we may applaud the exclusions. No one should object to the fact that religions in which human sacrifice is a central part are stifled in liberal societies. However, while Hick is willing to allow for a hidden compatibility among a wide variety of beliefs, exclusivist beliefs themselves are to be rejected rather than reinterpreted. Reductive pluralism dismisses the exclusivist claims of any religion as nonessential, no matter how important in that religion’s own tradition.
Neither liberalism nor reductive religious pluralism is religiously neutral. Both discriminate against religious views in which there is a strong emphasis on the practical social dimension of religion. This line of criticism has been levelled against Hick’s pluralism by Ninian Smart, (21) who points out that differences among religions in truth-claims are at least matched in importance by differences in practice-claims. A similar critique of the religious pluralism of W. C. Smith has been presented by Ali Quli Qarai, (22) who argues effectively that religion has been understood as law no less than as faith in most of the major religious traditions of the world. Even if an ultimate resolution of truth-claims were a plausible suggestion, this would not resolve the conflict of practice-claims. What is distinctive and important about religions is not only their particular systems of belief, but rituals, ethical ideals, and laws. If a religion is valuable and worth preserving, much of its value would appear to stem from its practical side. A freedom of religion limited to freedom to believe as one chooses, but not necessarily to practice the ordinances of one’s faith, would result in the devaluation of religion.
A number of recent critics, whose views are presented and criticized by Peter Donovan (1993: 217-29), have taken note of the similarity between religious pluralism and political liberalism. Both involve compromise, accommodation, and the abandonment of tradition. Some conservative Christian thinkers contend that pluralism must be rejected because it threatens to undermine the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. As political liberalism undermines the political power of the Church, religious pluralism undermines its dogmas.
Jürgen Moltmann also likens pluralism in religion to the consumerism of Western society, and accuses it of a “repressive tolerance,” which allows everything a subjective possibility but is sceptical about any objective reality being adequately mediated by religious symbols. (23)
Many of the critics about whom Donovan reports find common cause with post-modernistic critiques of liberalism and the Enlightenment. Donovan finds it ironic “to see the descendants of Calvin and of the Inquisition joining forces with the disciples of Nietzsche to give lessons on tolerance to the children of the Enlightenment” (1993: 219), and he observes that despite their common cause in attacking liberalism, the conservative Christian and the postmodernist are fundamentally opposed on epistemological issues, with the postmodernist rejecting the realism of the conservative, while it is precisely because of his theological realism that the conservative cannot accept liberal religious pluralism.
Donovan himself seeks to defend some form of religious pluralism and liberalism, but only in the sense of respect for differences of belief, which he calls epistemic liberalism in contrast to the ideological liberalism of modernists who seek to bring the beliefs and practices of others into line with a secular, scientistic and humanistic world-view to form a uniform global culture. The culture of materialistic consumerism and extreme individualism associated with ideological liberalism threatens to destroy the Christian culture out of which it emerged, a culture that often seems to have been taken for granted by advocates of liberalism themselves, at least prior to the second half of the twentieth century. Although political liberalism arose out of an attempt to protect Christian culture from destroying itself through sectarian strife, the social changes that are justified by contemporary ideological liberalism are no less destructive, particularly the weakening of traditional familial relationships.
The Christian response to the onslaught of ideological liberalism and its attendant social changes has been divided between the resistance and accommodation characteristic of conservative and liberal Christianity respectively. In this conflict, the religious pluralism advocated by John Hick, W. C. Smith and others provides a theological basis for ideological liberalism. Hick claims that on the basis of the common ethical ideals of the great traditions, beliefs may be discredited if they run contrary to the dominant ethical current, e.g. the Jewish doctrine of “the chosen people” (Donovan 1989: 339).
Indeed, although Hick is willing to open the gates of heaven to the heathen, this does not mean that he is unwilling to pass moral judgment on religions. In fact, Hick argues that since reason cannot provide any useful criterion for grading religions, the standard against which they are to be measured is moral, although even here the great religious traditions of the world are so rich and varied that the cannot be judged as totalities:
How do we weigh the savage aspects of life in some Eastern and Middle Eastern countries — the bloody massacres at the time of the partition of India, the cutting off of a thief’s hands under Islamic law — against the Christian persecution of the Jews throughout the ages and above all in our own century? (1985: 85)
It is clear from Hick’s query that, while religious traditions cannot be easily graded, this does not mean that particular elements and practices are not to be judged. And what are the standards to be used for such judgments? Hick’s answer is clear. His preferred moral response to the Ultimate Reality is modern liberalism. He does not mean to claim that Christianity is preferable to other religions because of its liberalism, but rather he invites all to moral approbation under the wide umbrella of religious pluralism to the extent that they are willing to participate in the liberal agenda, about which Hick writes:
These modern liberal ideas have indeed first emerged in the West; but they are essentially secular ideas, which have been and are as much opposed as supported within the Christian churches. Contemporary Marxist, humanist and feminist critiques of economic, racial and sexual oppression have become common currency in Western liberal thinking, and have evoked their echoes in liberation and black and feminist theologies. But it would be erroneous to conclude, from the fact that these ideas have affected Western Christianity first among the religions, that Christianity has a proprietary interest in them. Our contemporary Western liberal-democratic, politically, racially and sexually liberated form of Christianity represents a creative synthesis of the Christian tradition with secular liberalism; and analogous syntheses are beginning to emerge within the other traditions. (1985: 86-87)
Muslims will have no quarrel with the liberal’s rejection of racism, but from the standpoint of Islamic morals (and for that matter, traditional Christian morals, as well), “sexual liberation” is a euphemism for licentiousness together with its public acceptance, which has profound social consequences. While the contemporary Western liberal assimilates condemnation of homosexual behaviour to racism, the contemporary Muslim considers any sort of sex out of wedlock, like racism, to be sinful.
Hick’s willingness to use his liberal standards to condemn the application of the shari‘ah is also clearly stated:
But, whilst the enshrining of detailed seventh-century Arabian laws as permanent divine commands for Islamic societies has hindered the development of more humane and sophisticated penal systems, fortunately it has not prevented many modern Islamic states from finding ways to depart in practice from the full rigour of the traditional Shariah. It has made penal advances difficult but happily not impossible. (1989: 336)
We can summarize the criticisms of Hick’s religious pluralism as follows. First, it advertises itself as the toleration of different faith traditions while in fact it prescribes the mutilation of these traditions in order to eliminate the ultimate differences among them. Second, it considers the apparent conflicts among religious traditions to be doctrinal rather than practical, thus ignoring the importance of religious law and community. Third, by diminishing the importance of doctrinal differences it weakens the prescriptive force of religious law. Fourth, it dismisses the use of reason as a means to advance religious understanding and settle disputes, despite the fact that such rational argumentation has been prominent in the theological or scholarly traditions of all the major world religions. Fifth, it misconstrues mysticism as a means of obtaining personal religious experiences on the basis of which beliefs may be justified. Sixth, it presupposes the correctness of the modern ethos of political liberalism despite the fact that this, too, is inconsistent with the moral traditions of the world religions as they have been understood for centuries.
On the other hand, it is part of the appeal of Hick’s program that it does promise some form of reconciliation, some attenuation of the conflicts among religious believers which cause so much suffering in the world today, even as they have for centuries past. It would seem that an ideal approach to the problem posed by the variety of religious faiths would be one that recognised and allowed for ultimately irreconcilable differences in practice as well as theory, while at the same time providing motivation for tolerance. I believe that valuable suggestions for such an approach to the world’s religions can be found within the Islamic tradition, which I shall dub non-reductive religious pluralism. Non-reductive pluralism is able to avoid the objections raised against liberal or reductive pluralism while maintaining an attitude of tolerance and rejecting prejudice.
In order to develop a non-reductive pluralism it will be helpful to reflect why the sort of pluralism advocated by Hick might be expected to win little support among Muslims, and why it has won the support of an important, if small, group of Christians. The first difficulty has already been mentioned: Islam, like Judaism, features a legalistic form of piety. Its aspirations are social. No matter how miserably we fail, Muslims aspire to build a society founded on the example of the Prophet’s just governance in accordance with Divine law. This aspiration cannot be sustained if the shari‘ah is nothing more than a by-product of early medieval Arabia’s cultural response to its Prophet’s confrontation with Reality. In terms of the Christian experience, however, in which legalistic forms of piety are viewed at best with suspicion, if not condemned as outright Pharisaic hypocrisy, the idea that ritual laws and taboos are human constructs rather than Divine ordinances is much more likely to be welcomed. Another difficulty is that its relationship to other religions is a matter treated fairly extensively within the shari‘ah itself, and even in the Qur’an. Pre-Islamic paganism cannot be viewed as simply another way in which man relates himself to Ultimate Reality under the pretext that polytheism and monotheism are merely conceptually different approaches to what is inconceivable. This aspect of Hick’s pluralism seems to be what is most repugnant to many Christian thinkers, as well as Muslims. Monotheism is inherently iconoclastic, but if monotheism and polytheism are just two ways to the Ultimate, how can we justify Abraham’s breaking of the idols? Was his message really nothing more than that the worship of idols had become inappropriate in his time and locale? A non-reductive pluralism should respect the absolute claims of monotheism.
According to traditional Christian thinking, salvation is only possible through belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, and it is through this faith that one participates in the redemptive sacrifice of the Son of God. True belief is a necessary condition for salvation. Christians who are unwilling to go as far as Hick in their acceptance of non-believers, yet who reject the dogmatic assertion of their damnation, have found a third alternative in Karl Rahner’s concept of anonymous Christians mentioned above. According to this idea, non-Christians who lead good lives about whom it seems monstrous to claim that they must be damned may be said to be Christians even though they do not recognise this themselves. Rahner goes on to assert that if such people were properly exposed to the true teachings of Christ, they would abandon their former beliefs and become official Christians. Being an anonymous Christian is rather like holding an honorary degree from a university: despite lack of training at the school, one’s achievements are recognised by the university and the degree is awarded. Hick has argued that this view is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. It is patronizing. It fails to recognise the positive role a non-Christian faith may have in turning one from self-centeredness toward the Ultimate. It also substantially weakens the meaning of salvation through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.
What is needed is a religious pluralism able to fully appreciate the significant differences among religions, able to recognise that different ways toward human perfection and ultimate felicity are offered by the religions, despite their differences, and yet able to grant these points without diluting the strength of the religious claims by any kind of relativism. This is the promise of the non-reductive religious pluralism of Islam proposed below.
When we consider how a non-reductive religious pluralism might be formulated in the context of Islam, we must keep in mind that the issue of religious pluralism emerges in Christianity as a reaction to specifically Christian doctrines about salvation: that it is only through Christianity that one can benefit from the Redemption and gain salvation. A similar exclusivist doctrine can be found in some interpretations of the Jewish claim to be “the chosen people.” These doctrines are thoroughly condemned in the Qur’an:
And they say none shall enter paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian, these are their vain wishes. Say, “Bring your proof if your are truthful.” Yes! Whosoever submits himself to Allah and he is a doer of good, for him there shall be his reward with his Lord, on such shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. (Qur’an, 2: 110-11)
Religious pluralism emerges in Christianity as a reaction against the very attitude so eloquently condemned in the verses cited above. According to traditional Christian teaching, there is no way to salvation aside from the redemption offered by Christ, and even the great prophets, peace be with them, must wait in limbo until the resurrection, after which Christ must come to release them! Those Christian theologians who have opposed this line of thought and have sought to allow that non-Christians can achieve salvation have claimed that the saving faith either includes the unconscious acceptance of Christianity or is the common heritage of the world’s major religious traditions. Despite their differences, there is a common presumption shared by the various Christian parties to the dispute on pluralism. For Hick and Rahner, as well as the dogmatist, correct faith is necessary for salvation. In order to widen the opening of the gates of heaven, Rahner extends the notion of correct faith to those who live as if they were Christians and who would accept Christianity if properly exposed to it, while Hick goes further to deny that the apparent differences among the world’s faiths are irreconcilable. Hick’s ultimate reconciliation is what makes apparently different faiths correct. What Hick does is to loosen the condition of correct belief so that it is reduced to the common factor in all the world’s religions, however abstract this may be; nevertheless, it remains as much a part of Hick’s doctrine as Luther’s that there can be no salvation without correct faith, even if the correct faith according to Hick is something of a least common denominator.
In order to understand how to approach the problem of religious pluralism in the context of Islam, the two issues of correct faith and salvation need to be clearly distinguished. According to Islam, the correct religion ordained by God is that revealed to the last of His chosen prophets, Muhammad (s); this and no other religion is required by Allah of all mankind. In this sense, Islam is exclusivist. However, at various times prior to His final revelation, God ordained other religions by means of His prophets. So, the reason why the religion brought by Moses (‘a) is not acceptable today is not that what Moses taught was wrong or incompatible with the teachings brought by Muhammad (s), for they taught basically the same things, but because God has ordained the latter teachings for this era. The previous teachings were not incorrect, and they were sufficient to guide the people for whom they were revealed to salvation. Although some scholars seek to minimize the importance of this fact by appealing to riwayat (narrations) according to which the differences among the revealed religions amount to no more than the details of ritual practice, such as how many prostrations occur in various prayers, the number of days on which fasting is prescribed, and the like, there can be no denying that different paths can lead to God, and in different circumstances have been ordained by Him.
All of the divinely revealed religions are called Islam in the general sense of complete submission to the commands of Allah; while Islam is used in a specific sense to refer to the final version of Islam (in the general sense) brought by Muhammad (s). The difference between general and specific Islam gives rise to a number of interesting questions. How much variation can there be in the varieties of general Islam? Could God have ordained a version of general Islam for a people so different from us that we would not recognise it as such? Why did God ordain different versions of general Islam? The exact answers to these questions are with God alone. (24) But in the present age, general Islam implies specific Islam, and this must be understood if one is not to fall into error about the position of Islam with respect to religious diversity.
It is because of the demand that Muhammad (s) be recognised as the Seal of the Prophets (s) that the reductive pluralists’ solution to the problem of religious diversity cannot be accepted. To accept only some of the prophets (‘a) to the exclusion of others, particularly Muhammad (s), with the excuse that it makes no difference because all the religions are ultimately saying the same thing, is to fail to heed the divine call.
Verily those who deny God and His apostles and desire that they differentiate between God and His apostles and say “We believe in some and we deny, some,” and intend to take a course between this (and that), these are the infidels, truly, and We have prepared for the infidels a disgraceful torment. (Qur’an, 4: 150-151)
According to reductive religious pluralism there can be no better reason for adopting one religion rather than another than cultural affinity. As a result, the importance of the divine law is undermined. In the context of Islam, on the other hand, the shari‘ah brought by God’s final chosen Apostle (s) is understood as the perfection of all previously ordained ways. The divine call to follow the law of Islam is extended to all humanity, not merely to those of a specific cultural setting:
And We did not send you but to all people as a bearer of good tidings and as a warner, but most people do not know. (Qur’an, 34: 28)
With regard to the question of the correctness of faith, the position of Islam is clear. At various times in human history different faiths and laws were decreed by Allah. At present, however, there is but one divinely ordained religion, Muhammadan Islam, which requires belief in God’s oneness (tawhid), prophecy (nabbuwah), and the Resurrection (ma’ad). As God says:
O you who believe! Believe in Allah and His Apostle and the Book which He has sent down to His Apostle and the Book which He sent down before; and whoever decries Allah and His angels and His books and His apostles and the Last Day has indeed strayed off, far away. (Qur’an, 4: 136)
In sum, reductive pluralism is incompatible with Islam because according to reductive pluralism there is no requirement to accept all of the prophets (‘a) and no requirement to obey the practical laws given through God’s last chosen messenger (s), while according to the teachings of Islam, these divine prescriptions are clear. Reductive religious pluralism presents itself as an opening up toward other traditions, while from the standpoint of Islam, it is an attempt to open the way to kufr, a covering of one’s eyes and ears to the truth of God’s final revelation and its practical implications.
The solution proposed by Hick to this conflict is garbed in the euphemism “creative doctrinal development” (1985: 50). The patronizing tone in the following passage is typical of the liberal mentality:
Islam may be expected to go through essentially the same traumas as Christianity in its encounter both with modern science and with the emerging ecumenical outlook; only whereas the Christian trauma has been spread over a century or more, Islam is having to adjust in a single generation to an already formed modern culture. It is to be hoped that the Muslim world will eventually find its own Qur’anic way of combining modern knowledge with its faith in the Transcendent and its commitment to a morality of human community. And we may further hope that this development will also include an increased recognition of the ecumenical point of view that has already been so powerfully expressed within the Sufi strand of Islam. (Hick 1989: 378)
The final remark about “the Sufi strand of Islam” requires a discussion more detailed than that to be offered here, but if Hick is under the impression that his reductive religious pluralism can find support in true tasawwuf or ‘irfan, a fairly powerful argument can be given that he is mistaken, the outlines of which may take the following form. While there may be some degenerate Sufi tariqat willing to play the role assigned for them by Hick, and there are orders in the West into which non-Muslims have been initiated, the vast majority of the ‘urafa’, or gnostics, of Islam have required strict observance of the shari‘ah prior to initiation into spiritual wayfaring (sayr wa suluk). Hick is fond of citing the following couplet of Jalal al-Din Rumi: “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.” (25)
But this is what the Qur’an also affirms:
Verily We sent down the Torah in which there is guidance and light...(Qur’an, 5: 44)
And We caused Jesus son of Mary to follow in their footsteps confirming the Torah which was before him and We gave him the Evangel in which was guidance and light... (Qur’an, 5: 46)
But the conclusion reached in the Qur’an is not that, because all religions have divine light, it makes no difference which of them we follow, nor that religious choice is a matter of ethnicity. It is not as though we are presented with different lamps from which we are to choose in accordance with our own taste, background and the quality of our personal experiences; rather God presents the lamps to humanity in succession, and it is our responsibility to follow what God has assigned for us at the present age.
Rumi was by no means a reductive religious pluralist of the sort Hick makes him out to be. The Sufis have sought to explain the fact that there are differences in the religions that have been divinely ordained with the distinction between the exterior (zahir) and the interior (batin) of the religions. The differences among them are exterior differences; the interior is the same. However, the vast majority of Sufis have affirmed the duty to follow the prescriptions of the law of Islam with the slogan: no tariqah without shari‘ah. There is no way to the interior except through the exterior, and the exterior required in the current age is that of Islam.
Just as a thing fails if it lacks a kernel, so too it fails without a skin. If you sow a seed in the earth without its husk, it fails to germinate, whereas if you bury it in the earth with its husk it does germinate and becomes a great tree. (Rumi 1972: 31)
Nevertheless, a theme commonly found in the Sufi poets such as ‘Attar, Rumi and Hafiz is the expression of affinity toward Christianity or Zoroastrianism. This might lead some to the mistaken conclusion that these poets considered the differences between Islam and the other religions to be insignificant. What is really to be found in such expressions is the condemnation of the display of the outward signs of affiliation to Islam without any inward faith. It would be better to have nominal affiliation to an incorrect creed, but to believe sincerely in it and to follow the guidance in it for spiritual advancement than to be a hypocrite who outwardly professes Islam while inwardly he worships idols.
If we are to compare different forms of kufr, or unbelief, surely that of the hypocrite is worse than that of the sincere Zoroastrian. The outward denial of orthodoxy found in Hafiz (and even Imam Khomeini), e.g., staining the prayer mat with wine or consulting the Magi (pir-e moghan), becomes a means of indicating the interior dimension of religion and denying hypocrisy, but unless the hyperbole is understood in this symbolism, it will appear as apostasy. Hypocrisy occurs with the outward affirmation of Islam and the inward denial. Imam Khomeini, following the example of Hafiz, wishes to emphasize the opposite of hypocrisy, namely sincere belief in Islam, so he exaggerates by invoking the opposite extreme, the outward denial of Islam with its inward affirmation; in this way kufr becomes a symbol for true iman!
Kiss the hand of the sheikh who has pronounced me a disbeliever.
Congratulate the guard who has led me away in chains.
I am going into solitary retreat from now on by the door of the Magus. (26)
The great Sufi theoretician, Ibn ‘Arabi taught that the fact that God’s truth can find expression in different, even apparently conflicting, religions does not mean that people are free to choose whatever religion suits their fancy. Ibn al-‘Arabi himself asserts that it is incumbent upon people in the present age to follow the shari‘ah brought by Muhammad (s), (27) and it is in this sense that all previously revealed religions become invalid (batil) with the revelation of the Qur’an. This does not mean that they become false, but that it becomes obligatory to follow the shari‘ah of specific Islam rather than that of a previous revealed religion. In this sense all previously decreed systems of religious law do become null and void, not because they are worthless, but because whatever is needed from them has been incorporated into the final revelation. He puts it as follows:
All the revealed religions [shara‘i] are lights. Among these religions, the revealed religion of Muhammad is like the light of the sun among the lights of the stars. When the sun appears, the lights of the stars are hidden, and their lights are included in the light of the sun. Their being hidden is like the abrogation of the other revealed religions: that takes place through Muhammad’s revealed religion. Nevertheless, they do in fact exist, just as the existence of the light of the stars is actualized. This explains why we have been required in our all-inclusive religion to have faith in the truth of all the messengers and all the revealed religions. They are not rendered null (batin) by abrogation — that is the opinion of the ignorant. (28)
The difference between the Sufis and the theologians on the diversity of religions is one of emphasis more than explicit doctrine. The Sufis emphasise the inner unity of the revealed religions while the theologians emphasise the outward superiority of Islam, but there is no real difference on either point. The theologians admit that the previous revealed religions contain light and guidance, for this is explicitly stated in the Qur’an. The fact that in the present age it is only the Islam revealed to Muhammad (s) that is valid and whose law is obligatory is also accepted by the Sufis. Both groups hold that the previously revealed religions, including the Christianity brought by Jesus (‘a), do not contain any doctrinal differences from Islam, but the Sufi is more willing than the theologian to look for insights contained in the other religions, despite what is considered by both the theologian and the Sufi to be the accretion of doctrinal error, to the precise extent that the primary concern of the Sufi is spiritual insight rather than doctrine. Because of his attention to the inward dimension, the ‘arif is also willing to allow for greater variance in outward diversity as expressions of a single Truth than those whose major preoccupation is doctrinal and ritual detail. In any case, both groups hold that Islam brings to perfection all that was contained in the previously revealed religions, and is the sole religion prescribed by God for the present age until the end of time. However, the ‘arif is willing to give poetic expression to his faith and to the rejection of hypocrisy through the symbols of the other religions, and even idol worship, as in the following lines from Baba Tahir and Imam Khomeini, respectively:
Synagogue, Ka‘abah, idol-temple, monastery,
none are known to be empty of the sweetheart. (29)
At the door of the tavern,
temple, mosque and monastery,
I have fallen in prostration,
as though You had glanced upon me. (30)
Another line of thought about the diversity of religions is to be found in the tradition of Islamic philosophy. After explaining that the common people whom the prophets (‘a) sought to guide are not capable of appreciating philosophical wisdom, al-Farabi writes: “These things are thus allegorized for every nation or people in terms familiar to them, and it is possible that what is familiar to one people is foreign to another.” (31) In al-Farabi’s view, which is to a great extent accepted by Ibn Sina, the religions all express a single philosophical truth in different symbols and through these symbols they serve to organise society and lead humanity to felicity. Furthermore, each great religion contains, in its corpus of revelations, “sufficient glimpses of pure truth to lead the elect seekers of truth to pursue this truth itself and to be able to allegorically interpret the rest of the symbols.” (32) According to al-Farabi, the spiritual content and background of all religion is identical, since this is universal, but it is equally true that the symbols employed by the religions are nor at the same level. Because of this some religions are “nearer to the truth than others, some are more adequate than others in leading humanity to the higher truth, some, again, are more effective than others in gaining the belief of people and becoming the directive force of their lives. Indeed there are religions whose symbolisms are positively harmful.” (33)
Like the Sufi position on the diversity of religions, nothing in the position of the philosophers contradicts the ideas emphasized by the theologians that in the present age the sole religion prescribed by God for mankind is Islam, that the previously revealed religions have become corrupted, that the beliefs associated with them differ from what was revealed to their prophets, and that Islam is the culmination of all previously revealed religions. Where the Sufis and the philosophers differ is on how to understand the interior (batin) of the revealed religions, through spiritual unveilings or through philosophical argument. What is most notable for its absence is the sort of view advocated by reductive religious pluralism, according to which religions are validated by personal religious experience, that since all the religions express a single interior truth it makes no difference which is followed, and that the common truth of the world’s religions in their contemporary forms are sufficient as guides to ultimate felicity. None of these essential elements of reductive religious pluralism would be acceptable within the theological, mystical or philosophical traditions of Islam.
The view elaborated may seem to be exclusivist, because of the claim of the sole superiority of Islam among the religions of the world; however, it is pluralistic insofar as it admits that a plurality of religious traditions contain divine light and truth, that it is the responsibility of true believers to treat the followers of other traditions with acceptance and respect, and that the followers of other traditions may find the way to salvation through their own faiths by the grace of God.
One of the major motivations for liberal Christian religious pluralists was to provide the theological groundwork for better relations between Christians and non-Christians. Instead of viewing the non-Christian with contempt as damned, he or she is seen by the Christian pluralist as in essential agreement with Christianity, for all the major religions are held to differ only in their external aspects. Differences in religion are to be understood on the model of ethnic differences, and relations among the participants in different faith traditions are presumed to take shape within the framework of the liberal state, which proclaims complete religious neutrality.
In Islamic thought, on the contrary, religious differences are not seen as a matter of personal preference, but as expressions of communal loyalty grounded in spiritual insight and critical evaluation. Those who choose a religion other than Islam are making a mistake, either sinfully or excusably. Since there is no way for us to tell whether or not the mistake is excusable, where good relations with non-Muslims are possible without condoning injustice, the presumption of an honest mistake is morally incumbent upon us.
In Christianity, especially in Protestant Christianity, there is a strong link between salvation and true belief, because it is through faith that one participates in the Redemption, which alone is believed to afford salvation. This link between true belief and salvation survives among Christian proposals for religious pluralism, like those of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and John Hick, in the idea that ultimately the variety of religious beliefs is a matter of surface differences over a fundamentally single faith, which may not even be expressible in human language. If one denies the doctrine of Redemption, and with it the link between faith and salvation which features so prominently in Christian thought, the obvious alternative, at least obvious in a Christian context, is the idea that faith is to be purchased through good works, an idea emphatically denounced by Luther and by the majority of Christian theologians, including Catholics, after him.
The Islamic tradition appears to offer another approach to the problem. Muslims, like Christians, reject the idea that good works alone are sufficient for salvation. Like Christian writings on the subject, it is not difficult to find Muslim expressions of the idea that there is nothing one can do through one’s own efforts to make oneself worthy of salvation without the grace of God.
This is a theme which runs throughout Imam Zayn al-‘Abidîn’s Sahîfat al-Sajjadîyah. (34) Good works without faith appear ungrounded, for faith provides the cognitive framework in which the final good is to be understood and intentions to do good works are to be formed, and it is through such orientation and intentions that God draws His servants toward Him by His Mercy. But faith is more than the mere acceptance of a list of doctrines, it is a spiritual readiness to travel the way toward Allah and wholehearted submission to His will. In Islam, salvation is seen in terms of the movement of the soul toward God, a movement that is explained in terms of the acquirement of the Divine attributes or extinction of the self in God through submission to Him, and whose aim is a beatific encounter with Divinity. To achieve this, God demands faith and good works, and in the present age, this means the acceptance and practice of Islam as revealed to the last of His chosen messengers (s). Ultimately, however, it is neither by faith nor good works that man is saved, but by the grace of God. So, in a sense, there may be a kind of redemption in Islam after all, although not by that name, and not necessarily through anyone’s death. It is a redemption by the grace of God that can be accomplished in accordance with His will in ways we may never imagine.
An Islamic non-reductive pluralism may be contrasted with Hick’s pluralism and Rahner’s inclusivism in terms of the place of ignorance in the three views. In Hick’s view, every major creed, no matter how different, expresses an ultimately single faith. That ultimate faith may not be expressible in human language, so there is a sense in which believers are ignorant of what they really believe. In Rahner’s view, Christians know that they are Christians and it is only others who may be ignorant of their latent Christian belief. (35) According to the non-reductive view, no attempt is made to reinterpret apparently conflicting beliefs to reveal some hidden agreement. Instead of positing ignorance about what we believe, we are to admit our ignorance of how God may guide the sincere, and what beliefs are the result of a sincere quest for the truth. The identities of all the prophets are not known, and in the most famous hadith about the number of the prophets, Abu Dharr reports that the Prophet told him there were one hundred twenty-four thousand prophets. Corrupted forms of the teachings of these prophets may survive in any number of the variety of the world’s religions and cultural legacies. The admission of ignorance in this matter is an expression of humility before the judgment of Allah; such humility has featured prominently in the Islamic tradition, and it may provide a basis for an Islamic form of a non-reductive religious pluralism. After mentioning some of the good people who will be saved and the hypocrites who will receive a double chastisement, the Qur’an mentions that there are others who must await the command of God. Until then, we cannot say whether they will be rewarded or punished:
And others must await the command of Allah, whether We will chastise them or whether He will turn to them. And Allah is all Knowing, all Wise. (9: 106) (36)
John Hick’s religious pluralism is to be lauded as a great improvement over its exclusivist and inclusivist predecessors in Christian theology, and Muslims will be impressed by the fact that the denial of the traditional Christian dogma of the Incarnation brings Hick’s theology much closer to Islamic doctrine. Nevertheless, Hick’s reductive pluralism hides a set of moral and political values that are at odds with Islam. They are at odds with Islam not only because of the detail of the judgments they inform, but, even more significantly, because of where they set their standards. Islam teaches that we are to look to the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet (s) to find guidance in politics and morals, while Hick would have us turn to the worldly currents of modern thought, which are more often than not decidedly opposed to Islam. And although a severe punishment awaits the enemies of Islam, as for those who honestly accept an invalid creed, it must be admitted that this invalid creed itself may be the vehicle through which God extends to them His grace and leads them to salvation. What is truly of value in Hick’s religious pluralism is a tolerance that can be found more completely, in a sense, within the Islamic tradition, and may be formulated along the lines suggested above as a non-reductive religious pluralism. (37)
Many of the discussions of religious pluralism bog themselves down is questions of better/worse comparisons that often prompt defensive responses and a breakdown of meaningful dialogue. Through non-reductive religious pluralism, however, we can accept as granted that each person, rightly or wrongly, considers his own faith tradition as the best (in some sense, at least for himself), while admitting that in other traditions there may be genuine religious and moral values to be appreciated. This allows for dialogue without compromise, yet with openness to learning from the other.
Other tendencies that are sometimes found among those who favour interreligious dialogue are relativism and syncretism. Relativism (at least in the common forms one often encounters) is a barrier to meaningful discussion because it deprives one from the ability to criticize others or to seriously consider criticism. Syncretism undermines interreligious dialogue by condoning what is unacceptable by the mainstream of any of the traditions represented in the dialogue. Non-reductive religious pluralism allows one to maintain the absolute validity of one’s own religious commitments while admitting that one can learn from and benefit from others.
Non-reductive religious pluralism allows us to maintain a particular religious identity while supporting and encouraging the other in his or her own identity. Identity politics is often one of communal violence and the exclusion of others who are seen as threats to one’s identity; but exclusive associations with co-religionists are perfectly compatible with simultaneous interreligious association and cooperation.
Perhaps through this sort of view we will be able to find a better way to defend religion in the modern world, to defend religion side by side with others who do not share our own religious views. To defend religion means to support, encourage and defend the dignity of others’ faiths and practices to the greatest extent possible. We must confess that this is not unlimited. Each particular relation between faiths has its own specific difficulties and opportunities, and I do not mean to give the impression that the sort of non-reductive pluralism here advocated means that we must content ourselves with statements and practices in other groups that we consider wrong. However, it should be possible to defend the dignity of other religious affiliations (at least with regard to the major religious traditions) before our own co-religionists. It is especially appropriate for us to defend the dignity of the religious identity of the other when the other is of a religious faith in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Finally, we should pray together for divine guidance, charity, and understanding, for ourselves and for those of other faiths whom we encounter along the way toward Him..
It may be appropriate to end with a story from the poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, who is known in Iran as Mawlavi (my master). The story is told of a shepherd whose prayer is overheard by Moses:
Moses met a shepherd on the road, who kept saying, "O God!" and "O Allah!" "Where are You?-- so I can become Your servant, and mend Your sandals and comb Your head. (So) I can wash Your robe, kill Your lice, (and) bring milk in front of You, O Great (Lord). (So) I can kiss Your small hand, massage Your small foot, and sweep Your little (dwelling) place (when) the time for sleep comes. All my goats are a sacrifice for You. (And all) my (shouts of) 'Hey!' and 'Ho!' are in remembrance of You. The shepherd was talking foolishly in this manner, (and) Moses said, "O so-and-so, to whom is this (being said to)?" He replied, "To the One who created us, by Whom the earth and the heavens came into view." Moses said, "Hey! You have become very backwards. You have certainly not become a Muslim. (Rather), you have become an unbeliever. "What is this foolish talk? What is this gibberish and ignorance of (true) belief? Press some cotton into your mouth!”
Later God reveals to Moses that the worship of the shepherd was accepted by Him, and Moses repents of his scolding the shepherd.
A revelation from God came to Moses: "You separated Our servant from Us. Did you come for the sake of uniting or did you come for the sake of separating and cutting off? As much as you are able, do not step in (the direction of) separation. The most hateful of (lawful) things to Me is divorce. I have given to every person a (particular) nature and temperament, (and) I have given to every person a (particular) form of speech and idiomatic expression. It is praiseworthy in regard to him, but blameworthy in regard to you; it is (like) honey in regard to him, but (like) poison in regard to you.
This, however, is not the end of the story. After the revelation, Moses seeks out the shepherd and they are reconciled. When Moses tells the shepherd that he has permission to speak with God as he had been accustomed, the shepherd thanks him for prodding him to move beyond that to a higher spiritual station. Mawlavi draws the moral himself:
Take care (and) know (that) whether you speak (words of) praise or gratitude (to God), it is like the foolish (words) of that shepherd. (38)
This is an expanded version of a paper that has appeared under the title, “A Muslim’s Non-Reductive Religious Pluralism,” in Islam and Global Dialogue, ed., Roger Boase (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 51-73.
(Their guidance is not your responsibility; but Allah guides whomsoever He will) (2:272).
John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 36-37.
For an overview of definitions gleaned by surfing the internet, see B. A. Robinson, “Quotations Showing Various Definitions of the Term ‘Religious Pluralism,’”
URL = http://www.religioustolerance.org/re l_plur1.htm.
A rather vitriolic Christian opponent of religious pluralism is Gregory Koukl, who refers to a newspaper article (27 January 1995, Los Angeles Times) by Robin Wright about the religious pluralism of Abdolkarim Soroush, saying, “The stupid concept is the idea that all religions are basically equally true. That is just flat out stupid. Only a nitwit would really hold to something like that, having really thought it through.” URL =
http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/apologetics/comparisons/replural.htm. What is of interest here is that Koukl bases his charge that religious pluralism is a self-refuting thesis on a definition of religious pluralism as an equality in truth.
See Peter Byrne, Prolegomena to Religious Pluralism: Reference and Realism in Religion (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 12. I have changed the wording of the third clause to stress the equality condition.
Byrne (1995), 5.
The definitive statement of Hick’s view is spelled out in his An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendental Unity of Religions, revised edition, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975).
For more on the notion of special obligations, see the entry by Diane Jeske, “Special Obligations’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2002/entries/special-obligations/.
Françoise Champion, “The diversity of religious pluralism,” MOST Journal on Multicultural Societies, Vol. 1, No. 2, (1999), URL = http://www.unesco.org/most/v11n2cha.ht m.
An issue of the journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 3, July 1997, was devoted to “The Epistemological Challenge of Religious Pluralism,” by John Hick.
See Graham Priest, “Dialetheism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 1998 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.e du/archives/win1998/entries/dialetheism/.
See William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany: SUNY, 1989), 66, 112-116, 324.
Notice the contradiction in condemning someone to never ending torment that ends with penitence.
See the article by Edgar Trexler, “God Smiles on Augsburg,” in The Lutheran,
URL = http://www.thelutheran.org/9912/page 42.html.
See Eric Sharpe, “Dialogue of Religions,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987); and William Ernest Hocking, Living Religions and a World of Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1940).
John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 34.
For more on Traditionalism and a criticism of the hermetic pluralism of Dr. Nasr, see Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen, “Why I Am Not a Traditionalist,” ReligioScope (2002), URL = http://www.religioscope.co m/pdf/esotrad/legenhausen.pdf.
Peterson, et. al., (1991), p. 227.
Ninian Smart, “Truth and Religions,” in Steven M. Calm and David Shatz (eds), Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 291-300
See his lengthy review of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) in Al-Tawhid, vol. 3, no. 3: 163–89, concluded in vol. 3, no. 4: 154-96.
Donovan (1993: 218) here reports on the views of Moltmann expressed in his contribution to D’Costa 1990.
The question of religious diversity is discussed by Ibn al-‘Arabi, in chapter 48 of the Futuhat, in which he explains that religious diversity is the product of the diversity in the divine relationships. Cf. Chittick: 1994: 155-160.
Hick 1989: 233; Hick 1985: 108; cf. Nicholson’s edition of the Mathnawi, Book III, v. 1259.
From Sabu-ye ‘Ishq, translated as, A Jug of Love: Eight Ghazals of Imam Khomeini, trans. Muhammad Legenhausen and ‘Azim Sarvdalir (Tehran: Islamic Thought Foundation, 1994).
Futuhat, III, 311.23, see Chittick 1994: 155
Futuhat, III, 153.12, translated in Chittick 1994: 125,
From the Divan of Baba Tahir, trans. Muhammad Legenhausen and ‘Azim Sarvdalir.
From Sabu-ye ‘Ishq, trans. Legenhausen and Sarvdalir.
From his Siyasat, cited and translated by Fazlur Ralunan in his Prophecy in Islam (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958), p. 40.
Ibid. p. 40.
Ibid. p. 41. A view similar to al-Farabi’s is endorsed by Ibn Sina in his Risalah al-Ahawiya.
Trans. William Chittick (London: Mohammadi Trust, 1989).
I am grateful to the faculty of theology at the University of Innsbruck for pointing out a few inadequacies in my understanding of Rahner’s position at a reading of a summary of this paper 13 December 2005.
See the discussion of this âyah and related ahadith in ‘Allâmah Tabatabâ’î’s Al-Mizan; cf. Qur’an, 5: 118, 33: 24.
37.A more complete elaboration of the ideas expressed in this article may be found in the author’s Islam and Religious Pluralism (London: Al-Hoda, 1999).
The story is found in Book II of the Mathnavi. I have used the translation from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard, first published on "Sunlight" (yahoogroups.com), 2/8/01, available at URL =
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